Diane Revoluta

A Christmas Eve Message For The Prime Minister

John,

No doubt you’re a fan of the annual Christmas message from the Queen to her minions in the antipodes, so I thought – hoped – you would be similarly interested in a short, heartfelt message from one of your own.

Let me tell you, John, a little about my Christmases growing up. We lived on a sheep and beef farm in the central north island – your real “meat and three veg” kind of family. Christmas was always a busy time on the farm – sheep to be shorn, baleage to feed out, maybe a little summer drenching to be done. We couldn’t go away far because someone still needed to be home to move the stock and feed the dogs so we would spend Christmas with either our grandparents, who lived about 20 minutes drive away, or at home with extended family.

On Christmas Day, we’d wake up, run to the Christmas tree and empty our respective pillowcases. Mum would put her CD of Boney M’s Greatest Christmas Hits on and we’d pass around the gifts. Dad would make a ham sandwich (again, the meat and three veg thing) and we’d sit around for a few hours playing with our new toys and eating Christmas chocolate. Family would come over for Christmas lunch, we’d pull bad jokes and funny hats from Christmas crackers, and eat ourselves into a stupor.

I hope you’re still reading, John, because so far this probably sounds like your average family Christmas. No doubt you know lots of farmers – after all, they are the ones for whom who happily weaken our ETS scheme and the ones you prioritise above all else in trade negotiations.

The thing is: this is by no means your average family Christmas in New Zealand. We live in a country where 270,000 children live in poverty. If there are gifts under the tree, it’s likely they were bought on hire purchase or on debt incurring astronomical levels of interest (something your government opted not to cap in a recent bill). There may be food on the table, but it may mean in three weeks time there is not.

Recently you wrote (and I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here in thinking it was you and not one of your many speech writers) a heartfelt piece of your own in the New Zealand Herald’s John Kirwan special. You spoke about how bright the future is looking in this country’s young people. You spoke of what your government is doing to ensure that future: national standards, ultra-fast broadband, and a commitment to addressing youth suicide. Not once in that piece did you mention child poverty, income inequality or even the disparity in the opportunities children in New Zealand face. Ultra-fast broadband is great, but it’s great for the kids sitting in class with their own, personal tablets and a teacher equipped for e-learning. It means nothing to a child who can’t concentrate because they are learning on an empty stomach, or who takes weeks off in a year due to sickness from living in a damp home, let alone the many children who have very limited access to technology in the school environment and none at home.

On Christmas morning, when mum was playing her carols, I remember how I used to hate the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. Age ten (so let’s put aside the very obvious critiques of that song for a moment), I hated the idea of people somewhere in the world going without at Christmas. At that age, I really did believe it was just starving children in Africa. I had no idea there were kids my age in New Zealand – in my community – going without. Why would I? The only people I knew were people like me: largely happy, carefree country kids living on huge plots of land they could call their own. It’s easy when you’re living in a multi-million dollar home in Parnell to do the same: to forget that your experience is not universal.

If I was painting my Christmas as idyllic and perfect, let me correct you now, John. Like many families, Christmas was tense and seeped in the kind of politeness usually reserved for interactions with strangers. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” could equally apply to an awkward family Christmas where half of the members of the table don’t as much as grunt each other, and loud, shrill chatter rings out to cover up the deep hurt and resentment sitting around the table.

As Prime Minister, you can’t change the fact that for many families Christmas will be a time of tension and stress. What you and your government can change is the stress that is caused by living in gross insecurity: be it because of high unemployment – especially among young people; poor education; crime, which destroys the communities of both those who offend and those who are offended against; addiction, including the kind of addiction your government sanctions through either action or inaction; housing, as people watch their communities be pulled apart and their homes pulled from under their feet; or poverty, something that exists regardless of whether we want to see it or not.

Merry Christmas, John. I hope you have a good one. And I hope, in the spirit of Christmas, something – anything – makes you stop to think about the many people in New Zealand whose Christmases you and your government have the potential to vastly improve.

 

 

Beyond blame: addressing rape culture through feminism and criminal justice

Over the last week, one story dominated our news, our timelines, and, for many people, our minds. We have watched on in horror as more and more of the sordid details of the Roast Busters rape ring emerged: the Police inaction and the complicity of the school, compounded by the horrifying victim-blaming by two shock jocks on the radio. It’s been a week where ‘rape culture’ was mentioned in New Zealand Herald articles, and where the phrase ‘victim-blaming’ truly seeped into the public consciousness. It has on all accounts been a big week for feminism: rarely have we seen rape culture dominate the news in this way. The fact it took such horrific circumstances for this conversation to take place shows just how far we have to go in mainstreaming these conversations.

For me, this week has been challenging in a lot of ways. We are a diverse bunch in this country. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though: more than ever, we exist in bubbles. While once upon a time our bubbles were defined and limited to with whom you lived in close proximity, the Internet has facilitated bubbles along the lines of interests and experience. Feminism is one discourse that has benefited hugely from this: while the vast majority of people in your physical bubble are still likely to dismiss feminism as [insert tired cliché], the feminist community across New Zealand and the world has come together on forums such as Facebook and Twitter and created the illusion that every woman and her dog (or blog) are feminists. It has allowed people to identify with different subsets of feminism: body politics, black feminism, sex-positive feminism, and the whole lot under the tidy label of intersectional feminism. This week, in a week that to many people no doubt felt like a defining week of feminism in mainstream New Zealand discourse, I struggled with feminism.

I spend a lot of time thinking about criminal justice. I believe in the rights and plights of not only victims but offenders, too. I take issue with the entire victim/offender dichotomy because so often victim and offender are the same person. I believe that crime is so often a product of the society we have created, and until the focus shifts from placing blame on individuals to addressing the systemic issues that act as a little Petri dish for crime, we will continue to see its devastating effects on our communities. Given that many feminists are aligned with the left, and many of those who push for a shift in the way we think about crime align with the left, these views are often non-contentious and there is often a comfortable relationship between my identity as a feminist and a criminal justice advocate.

This week, and in discussions of rape more generally, there has not been such a comfortable overlap. A lot of the discussions about the Roast Buster case have focussed very squarely on demonising and dehumanising the two young men at the centre of the ring. As the story spread beyond New Zealand, international feminist website Jezebel picked up the story. In their most recent story about the police inaction, the piece begins:

As more details emerge about the self-styled New Zealand rape club that called itself the “Roast Busters,” naturally, questions arise. Namely: What the fuck? Followed by: What kind of a malformed fucksticks do this kind of thing to other human beings? And, finally, the inevitable: How the fuck did this happen? 

This has not been unique to not-always-beacon-of-progressive-feminist-thought Jezebel. The demonization of people who commit rape has been seen in almost every think piece, every open letter, and every tweet on the subject.

There are many problems with the ‘malformed fucksticks’ mentality. Firstly, it builds on the myth that people who commit rape are the ‘other’: they are evil, inhumane rapists. They are not your best friend, your brother or your workmate. What we know about rape is that often it’s the latter: it’s completely possible that there was a rape at the Halloween party you went to last weekend, at last year’s staff Christmas party or even at some stage in your inner-city heat-pumped vege-gardened flat. The case of the Roast Busters was clearly not one of these, and instead a horrific example of the power play and perverted sexuality that often goes with rape, but realistically these were two 18 year old men that no doubt do very normal things like use public transport, buy laundry detergent and play in sports teams. Building the myth of the ‘other’ is part of rape culture, and it ignores many of the realities of rape.

However, it’s more than just the fact dehumanising rapists perpetuates myths about rape. It creates the illusion that this person who committed the rape is an intrinsically bad person: the blame is squarely on their shoulders, “how could anyone do this?”, “what an evil, evil person”. It shifts the blame from the victim, which is how traditionally rape has been understood, to the offender, rather than looking at the wider issues that create a culture of misogyny, a society that doesn’t respect women, and a generation of young people who don’t understand what consent looks like.

As with all criminal offending, it’s important to differentiate between apportioning blame and ascribing responsibility. These young men, and every person who commits a crime, are responsible for their actions. It’s essential that people who hurt and wrong others are held responsible in some way for what they have done. But, to me, this is very different from a culture that blames. Blame is about ascribing fault rather than responsibility. It’s your fault you robbed this store, it’s your fault you got into that car and hit that person while drunk. It’s different from saying you are responsible for that car accident, but you have a drinking problem and this is why you were driving drunk. In the context of rape, it’s different from saying you are responsible for raping this person but you live in a culture which depicts women as objects lacking in agency and in a culture where we talk about things like “blurred lines” in terms of consent. Blaming someone allows the focus to be squarely on the individual, and in doing so obscures the wider, often far more difficult to address issues.

The very obvious, and indeed valid, point about blaming in the context of rape is that it is against the backdrop of a culture that for so long has pointed the finger at women in terms of blame. Many people will argue that it is important to place the blame on the offender because for so long it has been put on the victim. Some will say that blaming and dehumanising the person who committed the rape is a reaction to the years of blaming the woman for the way she dressed, or the “mixed-messages” she gave. I get that, I do. But I think as long as the blame (again, distinct from the responsibility) is placed on the individual, the far bigger and wider issues – the blame on society – will go unaddressed. And, like in the case of all other crime, individuals will be locked up time and time again, but the real causes will remain and the crime will continue to take place. And while many feminists have argued this week that they are addressing the prevalence of victim-blaming by shifting the blame to the offender, to me this ignores the bubble. Society still victim-blames, but many of the people who are talking and tweeting and facebooking about this exist in a bubble where we have a pretty strong consensus that women are not in any way to blame for being raped. We are not talking with or to wider society, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we are. Victim-blaming is still rife in wider society, but it is not rife in the very small circle of feminists tweeting about it, or writing and reading open letters.

This is not about letting perfect be the enemy of progress. It’s about recognising that in many of the places we are having these conversations, progress has been made. And we shouldn’t be afraid of striving to achieve better: we should be open to exploring issues at more complex and nuanced level. In mainstream discourse, we need to address victim-blaming, but we should be working for a more intersectional approach within our circles that looks to truly address rape culture.

I start here: these two 18-year-olds have done horrible acts, but they are still people. They should not be defined by their acts, they are not people who are destined to be “rapists” for the rest of their lives. We know nothing about them but what we know about their acts, and therefore we should be wary of defining them solely by their acts. We know nothing about the culture they grew up: for all we know, they could’ve grown up seeing their mothers being raped by their fathers. They could’ve grown up being raped themselves. As soon as you stop looking to place blame and start looking to ask questions, more often than not you find some explanations as to why offending takes place. Not excuses, but explanations. For many victims, understanding the context in which the offending takes place – understanding the “why” – can help heal a lot of scars. For some, it won’t. Some victims will want to respond with hate, and I will be the very last person to judge them for doing so. As a victim of any crime, you are entitled to whatever feeling and emotions you have. But hate is not an emotion that allows you to move on with your life. In my interactions with people who have engaged with more restorative approaches to crime, for example meeting with their offender and being able to ask questions and explain the impact of the crime on their lives, many people feel a sense of healing and closure.

When we place ‘blame’ on people and speak of ‘malformed fucksticks’, we encourage hate and we restrict understanding. We look for how we can punish the individual rather than address the wider culture. I say this as someone who never wants to see my friends, my family, my colleagues or myself victims of rape – in many cases, again. I say this as a feminist who finds rape abhorrent, and as a person who also believes no person is intrinsically evil. This week has shown me how important it is we don’t treat the two as mutually exclusive. 

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A response to my park off challenge (or to my clumsy, garrulous letter)

If you opened the internet yesterday, you will be well aware of the fact Bob Jones wrote yet another piece maligning women en masse, this one provoking violence against women for our apparently sub-par driving skills. I took umbrage with this, as any one against whom violence is threatened (by a knighted member of the public no less) is wont to do, but also because I have an infallible belief in my driving skills. My ability to drive manifests itself in many ways: I keep to the left, I generally follow the speed limit, and I am a big fan of waving to those lovely folk who let you in.

But these are all hard to prove. If you were to tell me “Di, we’re coming to test your theory: we are going to watch you drive and see if you keep to the left like us men do!!”, I would obviously be mindful to keep to the left. Similarly, if you were to track me for a day and see that I was keeping within the speed limit, I would just make sure to not go too fast. Driving ability is generally difficult to prove. And I wanted to prove it. I wanted to prove bigotry and sexism wrong. I wanted to prove Bob Jones wrong.

For those of you who drive, you’ll know there are fewer more difficult feats that the parallel park. There’s so much pressure, so little space, and so much at stake (namely, less distance to walk to your destination and, of course, pride). It’s also something that you can’t just switch on and off. If I wanted to prove my superior driving skills, the parallel park seemed like a good way to do so.

So I challenged Bob Jones to a park off. I was polite, I let him be the one to decide on a place and time, I even said “regards” at the end of my letter even though I have no regard whatsoever for this vile man. And this was his response:

Dear Dianne,

One of the problems of writing a column is the stupidity of many of the readers as epitomised by your clumsy garrulous letter.

Read my column again.

Substantially it’s about the oddity, peculiar to New Zealand, of women in their 30s driving in the right hand lane. It details the police research into this phenomenon. Note also, I said not all women drive poorly.

How on earth you and I having a parking contest changes any of that only someone deeply lacking any logic facility could buy into.

Yours faithfully,

Bob Jones

Oh, Bob. This is even better than if you’d accepted the challenge. You suggest I am “deeply lacking any logic facility” (read: u dumb!). You critique my writing style. You use the word “garrulous”. You spelt my name wrong.

Bob, I’m not giving up on you. Perhaps you are concerned about my superior skills, as shown in the great snap of Bonnie in my previous post, or perhaps you realise how tenuous and ridiculous your original argument was. Because you don’t seem to appreciate my clumsy writing style, this one is a visual plea.

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Please, Bob, just let me prove to you just how wrong you are.

Bob Jones, I challenge you to a park off

Dear Bob,

I’m sorry to have to contact you via email but I’m on good authority that you don’t use cellphones and, well, it seems rude to catch you off guard with a challenge. I thought by emailing you, and putting it on the internet in case you don’t receive it (email is only a step away from cellphones so I’m not sure on your feelings about this mode of technology), it would give you time to have a think about whether or not you wish to accept.

You see, Bob, I read your column today and it seems you think women are bad drivers. Apparently we’re confused, we’re hazardous, we’re slow and we’re stuck in the right lane. It’s funny, Bob, because the statistics published by the Ministry of Transport suggest, in fact, men are far more hazardous on our roads, in terms of road crashes and causalities, and are in fact considered “high-risk drivers”. But, really, that’s beside the point. I’m not interested in generalising about a person’s driving ability based on their gender. Or, in fact, any other characteristic:  be it their race, their eye colour, their favourite colour, or even their age.

Because here’s the thing, Bob: I am a woman, and I am an extraordinarily good driver. My area of speciality is parallel parking. As a sidenote, if you are interested: the tip to good parallel parking is confidence. Arrogance, even. And it when it comes to parallel parking, I have this in spades. Once I did a park on MacDonald Crescent (a typically steep and narrow street in Wellington, I’ll assume you own property on it), and it roused a large group of men sitting on their balcony drinking beers to their feet to give me a standing ovation. An ex-boyfriend of mine once told me that he found my parallel parking abilities “sexy”. I’ve even added a photo down below on my car (Bonnie) in a particularly tight parallel park. I am the lion of the park kingdom. I am this song listened to in the context of parking. I am the Eleanor Catton of parking. I am a woman, Bob, and boy oh boy can I park.

So when I read your article this morning, I felt wronged. As someone who has instigated defamation proceedings, I’m sure you’ll be sympathetic to the feeling of being misrepresented. And I want to give you the opportunity to right your wrongs, Bob. I want to challenge you to a parallel park off.

I’ll let you name the street and the time, I can work around you. You’re busy after all, with your Herald column and, well, your Herald column. You can contact me on this email address or [cell phone number]. I’m sorry it’s a cell phone number but I don’t have a landline. I’ll be waiting for your response, Bob. Don’t be afraid. I’m only a woman, after all.

Regards,

Diane

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Bob Jones, I pity you, you fool

Today Bob Jones wrote what can only be described as a brutal attack on rape victims: “Rape a risk for those who walk on the wild side”. I’m not going to link to it because it’s likely you have already seen or heard about it, and if you haven’t that headline should be sufficient to make you feel pretty sick. It was in the New Zealand Herald, both online and in its print edition: New Zealand’s largest newspaper in terms of circulation and a publication that prides itself on offering “unrivalled investigative journalism [and] insightful commentary.” Jones’ piece was run alongside an outraged article by Pam Corkery on similarly abhorrent comments made by a policeman about the rape of a child, but let’s leave the obvious irony of that for now.

There’s no need to rehash what Jones said or why it’s offensive. It is particularly offensive if you are a feminist; someone who supports the plight of rape survivors; someone who understands the damage caused by a criminal justice system that has long either implicitly or explicitly sanctioned victim blaming; someone who believes in the rights of offenders and the damage done to all of society by labelling them “garbage”; a woman, or a half decent human being.

With a list that comprehensive, by gosh, you’d almost think Jones set out to be offensive. Which is why, after the rage that had swelled up as a person who ticks every one of those boxes started to subside ever-so-slightly, I felt something I have never felt before. I felt sorry for Bob Jones.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t the genuine, heartfelt kind of sorrow. It was more a patronising “oh poor old losing-his-grip-on-reality Bob” kind of pity. A similar sadness I felt for Paul Holmes back in 2011 and the same sadness I feel every day for Paul Henry. Because this is the conversation I imagine happening in the Herald’s office last week:

Herald Dude 1: Bob, we need to talk.

Jones: Don’t you mean SIR Bob?

Herald Dude 1: Sure, whatever. Sir Bob. Here’s the thing. Don’t take this personally but we’ve noticed you’ve become kind of… irrelevant.

Herald Dude 2: We know you have a lot of money and that at times we’ve found your rants to be popular, but unfortunately people just don’t care anymore.

Jones: What! Just a few weeks ago I wrote a very compelling piece about how anyone who supports a capital gains tax is just envious of me and wants to steal my precious fortune! How much more relevant can you get!?

Herald Dude 1: Unfortunately, Bob, that’s relevant only to you and, well, frankly it makes you seem a little paranoid. People are starting to like Labour again, we can’t have you upsetting the apple cart every time you worry that the poor people are going to ruin you.

Jones: Please don’t let me go, Herald Dude 1 and 2. You’re all I’ve got. I am the most hated of all of the Sirs and Dames, they don’t invite me to their dinner parties anymore. Give me a week. That’s all I need. I’ll make myself relevant, I promise.

And off Bob trotted on a mission to get some clicks and keep his ever-so-precious angry man soap box.

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Here’s the thing: people who have decent, intelligent thoughts don’t need to resort to hateful rants. They don’t need to go in for the very lowest of blows. They can write an opinion piece that is more than noise and is somewhat constructive. I’ll disagree with a lot of these opinions but I always will respect a well-formulated argument. Jones shows more than just hate for rape victims in this piece: he shows hate for himself. He shows he cannot construct any opinion worth reading for its insights, so must resort to pieces that are nothing more than painfully obvious attempts to offend for the sake of offending and getting page views. To me, that shows a lack of respect for yourself and the publication for which you write.

While I felt sad for Jones, I felt enraged and simply devastated for the victims of this crime. These are not just abstract tourists who exist only on the words of a page: they are people; people who are likely to be hurt, traumatised and recovering for not only a terrifying attack but the terrifying experience that is our justice system for rape survivors. They represent a large number of women who, as Bob himself recognises, are raped here in New Zealand. Some of these people are people I know and love, and fuck, Bob, imagine for a second what it must be like for them to read this.

But, for some reason, I woke up feeling particularly practical and optimistic this morning. I’m all about channelling rage into productive action lately. Yeah I’ll let off an angry fuckfuckfuck tweet and I did a bit of pacing by my bed this morning, but actually, Bob, watch me take your terrible column and use it to the advantage of the cause you seek to harm.

1. Every click is doing us damage

Let’s. Stop. Reading. These. Articles. Imagine, for a second, if this article didn’t get picked up. If we could leave Jones and his Herald buddies scratching their heads as to why no one clicked on that horrendous headline. The rise of news websites has meant the rise of click journalism. The Herald knows what you’re reading: every article about Miley twerking, Team NZ crying, and the latest house auction in Ponsonby is being monitored for how many clicks it generates. And the more clicks it generates, the more similar content the Herald generates. If we stop reading it, the Herald stops publishing it – it’s that simple.

2. Let’s read other stuff! Better stuff! And let’s support it.

There are so many great publications here in New Zealand, many of which are run only by donations and our support. Public Address covers a huge range of issues and news, with the kind of depth and insight unknown to the Herald. Take your anger at Jones and channel it into a donation.

3. Since we’ve already acknowledged the piece, in this case let’s complain.

The New Zealand Herald is one of the signatories to the Press Council’s principles. Principal 2 “Privacy” states: “Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.” This piece has clearly failed to show the necessary special consideration for the victims of this crime, who will invariably be suffering from trauma. I will be writing a complaint to the Press Council on these grounds, and I urge you to do the same. At the least, it’s a bad look for the Herald when it gets a huge wave of complaints, especially in light of its claims above of “unrivalled investigative journalism” and “insightful commentary”. That claim itself actually borders on a breach of s 9 of the Fair Trading Act 1986, in terms of being misleading as to the nature of the publication, but let’s leave that for another day.

Another avenue for complaint: the Honours Secretariat. Jones is someone who has been awarded a royal title in New Zealand for his service to the community. If you object to someone of this standing so clearly and callously seeking to hurt people in his writing, get in touch and voice your concerns.


And feel sorry for Jones. He seems to be just another person who loathes Bob Jones.

This broken ladder: why women still can not make it in the legal profession

My first piece up on The Pantograph Punch on women in the legal profession.

"Despite undeniable progress, women who enter the legal profession still enter a man’s world. If we want to succeed in this world, we do so largely on male terms – whether it be in the way firms function in terms of work ethic and rigid working arrangements, or the way firms engage with clients. Law, no matter how loudly and vehemently people will protest, still largely operates on a base assumption that the people writing, applying and indeed using it – especially in a commercial sense – are men. Progress is being made, but at times it feels superficial: the same structures that have long discriminated against women essentially remain in place, and the changes appear to be tweaks rather than the necessary systemic change if we are see a real shift in legal culture. A legal profession that not only enables female participation and progression, but actively facilitates it, will benefit not only female lawyers but firms and clients too. It’s a win-win game, if only today’s major players would see it that way too.”

The Same Old Lines: The Removal Of The Blurred Lines Parody

I’ve never been a huge fan of university Law Revues. The “offensive for the sake of being offensive” formula seems tired when sometimes it feels like the whole internet exists for the sole purpose of raising your hackles. Indeed, when I read the description of this year’s University of Auckland Law Revue, in which one of the main characters is described as “an ill-tempered feminist whose barbed tongue is matched only by her disdain for all men”, I let out an almighty yawn, closed the tab and didn’t give attending as much as a second thought. So when on Saturday afternoon my friend went to show me the Law Revue’s parody of Robin Thicke’s infamous Blurred Lines, I had low expectations at best. However, once we started watching it the look of disdain on my face quickly faded. I found myself smirking, and then laughing, at what was an incredibly well-made and well-written parody. “Shit”, I said, looking at the view count, “It’s already got 6,000 views”.

That was on Saturday. When I looked again this morning on the bus to work it had 130,000. About three hours later, it had 300,000 views. While there has been a large number of parodies of the song, and many of them have had at least 300,000 views, it would be fair to say this clip was going viral in the true sense of the word. At the rate it was going, it would be hitting one million views by the end of the day.

But then something unexpected happened. Loftily clicking around the internet as you do at about 11am on a Monday, I searched for “Robin Thicke Feminist Parody”. Hmmm. Lots of parodies, none of them the Law Revue version. “Blurred Lines Law Revue”. Nothing. “University of Auckland Robin Thicke Blurred Lines Feminist Parody Law Revue”, going the whole hog. Still nothing. Feeling a little disheartened by my poor search skills, I gave up. About an hour later, I saw this:

“A feminist parody version of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines which went viral on YouTube has been taken down. YouTube claims the video violates its terms and conditions by displaying sexually explicit content.”

Some context: this is the original clip. It depicts three very beautiful, very naked women, in a way that, even in a genre full of beautiful, naked women, it has been remarked upon for the way it objectifies women. Beautiful, naked women don’t necessarily equate with objectification, but where said beautiful, naked women are depicted completely devoid of agency, it does. This article puts it well:

Next to three dapper performers, the three women are stripped of their clothes and voices — except for one soft “meow,” they say nothing at all. Their presence in the video doesn’t really evoke sex or glamour in a powerful way, but simply controversy. There may not be violence or subservience here, but “Blurred Lines” reinforces a status quo where men suiting up and women birthday suiting up now seems to be the routine way to party. 

Where the original version gets really problematic is in notion of “blurred lines”: the idea that consent is anything but black and white. It’s a message sexual violence organisations have been fighting hard against for some time: the idea that consent is anything but as simple as yes and no.  When it comes to consent, there are no buts. No “but she was looking at me in this way/saying these things/laying me down on the bed naked”. As soon as consent is revoked, no means no. The idea that there are “blurred lines”, that consent can be this fuzzy concept and women should make sure they hold up a Winston Peters-esqe sign as to their intentions, is the very message that has led to the startlingly high incidence of rape in our country.

Regardless of whether you take umbrage with Thicke’s original version, it’s hard to argue the fact it contains nude women. I mean, it’s probably not something you’d sit in an open plan office watching. If I were to look over YouTube’s terms of use, I would say it ventures into the category of “sexually explicit content”. If we’re going to use the universal barometer that is Wikipedia, there definitely appears to be something analogous to “simulated sexually explicit conduct involving one or more persons”.

But I’m not outraged about the fact Robin Thicke’s original version has not been deemed sexually explicit content. What I find beggars belief is the fact the satire, of which the whole point it to imitate the original, has been. The satire uses the very effective tool of satire known as gender flipping. The whole point of genderflipping is the highlight how ridiculous and often offensive the portrayal of women is, and how much it differs from the portrayal of men. In the case of the Law Revue satire, it’s meant to be offensive. Its offensiveness comes from how offensive the original “non-flipped” version is. If one version is deemed sexually explicit, then it’s hard to argue the other is not.

When I watched the Law Revue parody for the first time, not once did it cross my mind that it would be taken down. I thought it was smart. I thought it made a point that no amount of words could make about what is an incredibly problematic video. In a world where I am used to seeing women deprived of their sexual agency, I thought the women were babes and they totally owed it.

Some people have argued the use of the vibrator perhaps pushed it over the edge for YouTube. Perhaps that was it. But that doesn’t make it right. The highly taboo nature of women’s sex toys is essentially a hangover (or simply the perpetuation) of the myth that women don’t masturbate; that it’s all “haha American Pie boys will be boys” when guys jack off, but girls don’t need nor want to pleasure themselves. There should be nothing wrong with mainstream representations of women’s sex toys. The fact, in this case, it was simulating oral sex could make it fall into the above definition of sexually explicit consent. But if we’re talking about blurred lines, how is that any different from all of the music videos in which a woman bends over and has a man grind her from behind? Not all of those videos are necessarily problematic, but it’s hard to say they’re not almost solely concerned with imitating sexual acts. What is it about this sexual act – if indeed it was taken down because of the vibrator shot – that is so odious YouTube has drawn a line and pulled it down? There should be nothing more objectionable about a woman using a vibrator in a music video to imitate oral sex, as a clip where a guy and a girl grind up against each other. What is objectionable is a clip that advances rape culture and robs women of their agency. Whether or not you think that deems removal, it certainly warrants it more than a smart, slick and clever satire that does nothing more than mirror the offense of the original.

YouTube doesn’t need to give more reasons than it has for the removal of the parody – it’s YouTube, you sign up to its term of use and it does what it damn likes. It does, however, raise interesting questions as to how sites such as YouTube, Google and Facebook draw these seemingly arbitrary lines as to what is objectionable and what is not. Facebook has attracted much-deserved criticism over its failure to remove pages that, again, perpetuate rape culture as well as racial hatred, misogyny and more. And yet we see these sites come down hard and fast against what often appear to be far less offensive content. The lines as to what is objectionable to YouTube seem anything but blurred when, like Thicke’s Blurred lines, it’s a clip made by Vevo, a music video hosting website that is operated by Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and indeed the company that owns YouTube, Google. Sexually explicit content or not, YouTube has no interest in taking down a clip that it essentially put up in the first place.

The Law Revue might have the last laugh on this one, though. Like any content generating debate that’s removed, it was only hours before the clip was uploaded to Vimeo and back generating views. YouTube isn’t the only content sharing site, but it is one that’s subject to the same, old tired prejudices and biases that have been plaguing women for centuries, and one that isn’t about to draw the lines where it’s not in the favour of their bottom line. Indeed, those are the well-defined, same old lines of this story.

At every age and every stage

At age 3, my first meaningful interactions with a woman working in business are with my Secretary Barbie.

Age age 4, imagining the future is to see myself having a house and a lawn and kids to run on the lawn.

Between the ages of 5 and 10, I am conditioned to be empathetic, sensitive and kind, while my male classmates are taught to be hard-working, resilient and confident.

At age 11, when family friends come over for dinner, I watch as the women busy themselves cleaning up the meal while the men sit in the lounge discussing politics.

At age 13, I go to high school and realise that smart girls are not attractive girls, and my popularity would be better served if I sit slumped in the back of a classroom feigning disinterest rather than eagerly answering questions.

At age 14, upon losing the regional debating final, a guy from the other team shakes my hand, smirks and says that “for a girls team, you put up a good fight”.

At age 17, not one career advisor or teacher or adult suggests I should consider politics as a career, despite the fact I am that 17-year-old who is on all of the youth councils and student bodies, I am a debater, and I show an interest in political issues.

At age 18, I go to university and find myself in law lectures and tutorials being talked over and shouted down. I am told if I want to do well in this career, I need to “toughen” (read: man) up.

At age 22, I go to a party and some dude wants to talk about abortion rights – because that’s a fun and purely abstract debate – and then tells me I should “calm down” about the fact he is telling me I should not have a say over my own body.

At age 23, my grandparents’ first question to me is still “do you have a boyfriend”.

At age 24, I sit around the table at a meeting of people in similar entry-level jobs and remark on the fact there are 13 other women and only one man. He’s our boss.

At age 25, I am made to laugh along to jokes about how Julia Gillard is just an angry, barren ginger who is married to a gay guy haha it’s just a joke why can’t you take a joke take a joke oi.

At age 30, when I decide I want to have kids I am told I should be able to juggle my career and parenthood – a full-time job in itself, and if I fail to do both then I’m just not cut out to be A Career Woman.

At age 32, I ask my firm whether I can work part-time and they say “of course!” and then mentally dump me in the basket of other part-time mothers who will never be partners because they can’t be relied upon to work until midnight every night. I am not given important clients or challenging work, and as a result I see my career begin to stagnate.

At age 34, I miss the staff Christmas function, which involves playing golf and then “getting on the piss”, because I am at home looking after my child with the flu. At the staff Christmas party, three younger and less experienced men stay up until 3am drinking whiskey with one of the partners. All three get promoted the following year.

Between the ages of 25 and 35, I lead community groups and volunteer countless hours to issues about which I care. However, when seeking a new role in a firm, I am told this irrelevant to the position.

At age 40, I decide I want to go into politics. At party meetings, I meet countless men who automatically discount every single word that comes out of my mouth purely because I am a woman.

At age 41, seeking promotion to the party list, I have advisors telling me that it “wouldn’t hurt” if I lost a little weight and suggesting a range of lipsticks that would suit my skin tone.

At age 42, seeking election, I have to be prepared for the fact that instead of just my grandparents enquiring as to whether I had a boyfriend, my love life – or the lack thereof – is going to plastered across women’s magazines and gossiped about over water coolers.

And if at age 45, I was put forward as a candidate for the party list and that position had been made available to women because of the continuing marked lack of women in politics, I would be told I “just got it because I was a woman”. Meanwhile, no man, ever, is told that he only got the position because every other card was stacked in his favour.

At every age, I get told that to be a female politician is to be ugly, aggressive and unlikable.

At every age, I have my appearance scrutinised, any changes in my size or wrinkles on my face reported, and my decision to have or not to have children considered the subject of legitimate debate.

At every age, I am told that it is all OK now because we had a female prime minister, governor general and Chief Justice, as if these exceptions have become the rule.

And today, I am told that it’s not fair that there would be measures aimed at ensuring women enter politics. I am told it is not fair that a party would aim to ensure still less than 50% of its MPs are women. I could be forgiven for thinking that a representative democracy should not be made to be representative.

I am lead to believe that affirmative action in politics means having worthy and deserving men lined up at the door for a position and then going and plucking the first female off the street. I am meant to disregard the fact women still face both institutional and overt discrimination – be it in politics, wider employment or society in general.

If you think affirmative action is about giving women jobs over men, you ignore the fact every other aspect of politics is geared towards men. You ignore that the culture of politics is inherently masculine. This is not a market that will simply correct itself. This isn’t about giving women special treatment or advantage. It’s about recognising that across society – at every age and every stage – males have received special treatment and advantage. If we’re really worried about fairness and equity, let’s get up in arms about that.  

Seven Reasons The Malborough Express Reeks (And Not Just of Racism)

1. Racism. It’s a thing.

A non-exhaustive list of how this cartoon depicts brown people:

  1. Greedy;
  2. People who see child poverty simply as a way to get free food;
  3. Fat;
  4. Lazy in that instead of “going out and getting a job” to feed their kids they just wait for a hand-out;
  5. Booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking gamblers;
  6. People who can’t afford to feed their kids because they are booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking gamblers;
  7. People rorting the system and taking advantage of the state.

It’s not an example of insidious, nuanced racism; it’s that glaring, in your face, brown-people-are-lower-beings kind of racism.

There are people who fall into some of those categories – people of all colours and races. If you want to see people rorting the system and taking advantage of the state, look no further than your local accountant’s office, where books are getting fiddled and tax avoided left, right and centre. If you want to see greed, this good Kiwi bloke seems to know a fair bit about excessive wealth. In a country where booze drinking is a national sport, and where our government is basically gambling’s greatest proponent, these are by no means characteristics of a race; they are traits of a whole nation.

2. Child poverty. It’s also a thing.

For those who have been tirelessly working in this space and pushing for a Food in Schools program, this cartoon basically reinforces every single shitty, fear-mongering argument against addressing our country’s child poverty problem.

Child poverty is not something you can choose whether or not you believe in. Just last week, Amnesty International labelled our track record on child poverty (and domestic violence, a problem inextricably tied to social inequality) a “stain on New Zealand’s human rights record”. It exists, it’s not going away – especially in a society of increasing wealth inequality, and in solving it we all stand to gain.  Last year, in what was a fantastic piece of journalism, John Campbell went into schools and showed the country the embarrassing state of our children’s lunchboxes. What we discovered was that a number of children are not only coming to school with empty lunchboxes but with empty bellies. As Campbell repeatedly reinforced, whether or not you ascribe blame to the parents – and god knows some New Zealanders will until they are blue in the face – these children are still going hungry. And when they are hungry they will not learn. And when they do not learn, they might drop out of school. And when they drop out of school, they might struggle to get a job and end up turning to crime. That trajectory is simplistic, yes, but it’s also, sadly, the way in which these cycles work. Breaking the cycle at the start costs the individual and the state a huge amount less than twenty-years down the track. Child poverty is harming our kids, our society and our future.

You know the situation is bad when we see action from a government fast becoming characterised by its complete lack of inaction. The government’s KickStart Breakfast programme has been subject to a range of criticisms, and rightly so. But the problem is not that it has taken action, it’s that it hasn’t taken enough.

3. It used the phrase “namby pamby”

This is the only other person I know who uses the phrase “namby pampy”. They are not even words, they just rhyme. It’s like the noise you imagine a 7-year-old bully using to taunt another kid whose mum kisses them on the cheek at the school gate. When you’re in the business of selling words, you really should be able to come up with a better adjective – at least a proper word – to level against us PC Brigaders.

4. It employs a dude who appears to have a record in creating racist cartoons

This isn’t the first racist gem from cartoonist Al Nisbet. Back in 2001, Nisbet put his name to this nasty piece of work entitled “Heh! Heh! Can we pull another one, Aunty Helen?”. The cartoon is described as: “A large hand, labelled ‘Maori’, has a firm grip on a Christmas cracker, which is weakly held by a small pakeha hand. The ‘Maori’ has already won several crackers, lying on the table below.”

Wow. Wish Māori would stop hogging all of the crackers. Especially the crackers that give them, as a population of people, the highest incarceration rate in the world. The crackers that mean, yes, child poverty affects Māori and Pacific communities more than Pakeha communities.  The crackers that produced some pretty hideous injustices over the past 170-odd years. Thanks for your concern, Nisbet, but I think the “weak, small Pakeha hand” is doing pretty well out of the current allocation of crackers.

5. It meant we heard from Susan Devoy

For someone who generally fails to comment on any hot race-related issue, and when she does it comes out so forced and unnatural that I really think we need to be making enquiries into the use of coercion down there at the Race Relations Commission, we have already heard far, far too much from Susan Devoy.

6. It perpetuates the myth that if you’re fat, you’re also greedy, trying to rort the system and basically the lowest form of human being

Sorry to all of you down at the Malborough Express, that hub of hard-hitting and news-breaking journalists, but you are not the first ones to come up with this stereotype: the idea that if someone is overweight it’s because they’re some kind of wild and depraved animal that can’t keep themselves from devouring anything within a 100-metre radius is, ironically, one of the laziest stereotypes out there. While racism in the mainstream media has generally become less obvious and more insidious, the stigmatisation of big bodies is (as a friend recently described herself) about as subtle as a clown. Every day we see fat people depicted as disgusting, lazy, morally blame-worthy lumps of flesh ambling along our streets, straining our health system, acting as a blight on our thin=beautiful society. The Malborough Express is just another media organisation participating in the kind of stigmatisation and discrimination of big bodies that one day we will look back on with shame.

7. It exists and presumably some people read it

I haven’t been to Marlborough before, but I have no doubt that there exists some decent folk. People who don’t think child poverty is a laughing matter. People who don’t ascribe a colour to people who “abuse the system” People who deserve a good, intelligent read over their morning coffee.

The editor’s response was to defend it, to say it is “getting people talking”. What he wanted people to “get talking” about, I am not sure. Presumably not racism, body politics and how shit his paper is. Presumably, he wanted us to talk about how this program is going to lead to people abusing the system, how child poverty is about parental not state responsibility, and how the solution to child poverty isn’t the KickStart Breakfast Programme. Of all the varied and valid criticisms being levelled against the government’s current plan, that “brown people are going to come and eat all of the food” is not one of them. If you have to be controversial and outrageous to get someone to listen to your argument, your argument probably isn’t worth listening to. Never has this been truer than in the case of the Marlborough Express.

The Myth of Inspiring Women

The origins of the marathon come from the Greek legend of Pheidippides. The story goes that Pheidippides ran 26 miles (or 42.2km, hence the oddly precise distance when measured in kilometres) from the town of Marathon to Athens to proclaim the defeat of the Persians. Upon arrival, he dropped dead from exhaustion and the marathon distance was born. I know “hey, this killed a dude so let’s make it a regular event” isn’t great logic (although, see also: archery, javelin, shot put, boxing and probably most sports that came out of Ancient Greece) but, even today in an age of gel shots and cushioned socks, it speaks to the enormity of the physical and mental challenge.

Recently I ran my first marathon, in the wake of which I have experienced a number of states. Some of these were expected: hunger – wow, I was so hungry; the inevitable metamorphosis into a more-prune-than-human state after hours of blissfully soaking in every possible repository of hot water; a few days avoiding all inclines and gently lowering myself down stairs as if my limbs were that of a tin soldier; and an extended period of tiredness I still cannot shake. I expected, to some extent, all of those states. What I did not expect was to feel a lingering sense of uneasiness; a niggling sprain of the mind triggered every time someone said “oh well done, you must be so proud”. I knew if this had killed an Ancient Greek and yet I was just hungry and tired, I should feel a sense of accomplishment. And yet, I didn’t.

I feel lots of things. Basically, this sums me up. I feel things after thinking about things too much and analysing things until I feel like I could map their genetic make-up in my sleep. A marathon was something about which I expected I would feel proud. My discomfort, probed and prodded by people congratulating me and inquiring as to my tired muscles and sore shins, stems from this question that I keep coming back to: why do I run? What made me run 42.2km and the countless kilometres in training? Why do women like me – young, professional women who try and do one million other things – run? When I run a marathon and try to outwardly appear as that misnomer of a woman who juggles All Of The Things, am I simply playing the very game I purport to reject? Have I built myself up as someone who, by projecting this image of doing All Of The Things, fosters self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy in other women? And the perennial question insofar as my brain musings, am I a bad feminist for all of these sins against the sisterhood?

***

Recently I was asked to speak at an event for young women as an “inspiring woman”. The purpose of the event was to “empower girls to be an active member in the community… to achieve things they would not necessarily think they could”. I was asked to discuss “what I had done so far and how I had been able to get there at such a young age”. At first, I was flattered. It’s quite nice having your ego stroked by a stranger. Then my mind turned to how I felt about being classed as “inspiring”. I realised that being inspiring means having achieved a few milestones that can be nicely summarised or rattled off in a 50-word blurb. It means having a scattering of letters after your name, the more the merrier. It’s a box ticking exercise of what it supposedly means to be successful as a young woman in 2013. It took me back to the high school arms race: who could pack the most badges onto the lapel of their blazer; who could have their name read out in assembly the most; who was, in retrospect, the entirely fucked up notion of a prefect (which, ever so ironically, Word suggests I change to “perfect”). I had been that 17-year-old and I thought I had left her far behind. 

I couldn’t make the event, so there was never any decision as to whether or not I would speak. I think I would have and I think I would have gone along and tried to make a case for why we are looking for inspiring women in all the wrong places. Why doing things like marathons and law degrees don’t make you inspiring. They might make you employed and fit, and they might be things you value – god knows society does – but in no way should they be seen as some kind of formula for respect. I would want to tell those girls how, actually, as of late I have been a pretty terrible daughter and sister, struggling with the non-existent relationship with most of her immediate family. I would want to tell them how often exercising as much as you do in the lead up to a marathon is borderline disordered behaviour and probably worth a trip to a therapist rather than a self-congratulatory status update. How I have an ever-growing pile of parking tickets. How I am unsure of how I fit into the social justice space that I spend a lot of my time occupying as I am someone doing pretty damn well out of the existing structural inequality in our society, and is it really possible to lead change when essentially you seek to benefit from maintaining status quo? How with all of this Doing Inspiring Things lately, I’ve been the most tiresome, difficult and flat out unpleasant person to those closest to me. Right now, I feel like the most inspiring woman to me would be one who was kind and generous in spirit and time. How actually an inspiring woman is just a decent human being.

Because here’s the thing: lately I’ve been feeling really hollow. When I think of being hollow, I always have this image of this majestic but decrepit old tree being slowly eaten from the inside. A tree that’s hanging in there but, really, is just a few ant bites away from collapsing entirely. I feel like soon those ants are going to get in, have a little gnaw, and the whole facade will crumble away. I feel like the endless platforms from which we shape and project our identity have left me feeling flat, left me feeling false, and like I’m not actually that person in that instagram or in that status update.

Which brings me back to my marathon. “My marathon” – like it’s a child, or a first step or some other kind of life-defining feat. When I look at the reasons behind why I would run a marathon, and when I undertake that excruciating exercise of extracting the true reason why I did this, I come up empty in terms of inspiration. For me, a marathon was an exercise of pride, of perfectionism, and, if I’m going the whole-hog with the honesty, an exercise of self-loathing. For many women, the marathon has evolved from a mode of relaying victory at war to a declaration of victory in a more insidious war: the war against the self.

After the run, many people said many nice things to me. I projected an image of easy, breezy, just-ran-a-marathon-now-time-for-brunch Di. Part of me reasoned “hey, it’s OK to feel proud about this, if you post it on Facebook it might be a nice change from the stream of cute dog pictures and articles about social and criminal justice”. I wanted to let people know because their response would perhaps make it seem more worthy, more of an achievement. Maybe it would make me feel proud.

I feel so happy for every person who undertakes a marathon and does feel proud. But seeking affirmation as a means to feel proud, that is where the hollowness breeds. We should seek to achieve in a way that make us feel good about ourselves, do the things we truly value – not the things we feel like other people will deem valuable and worthy of acknowledgement. I’m ignoring the complex interplay between what we value and what we’re told to value, and sometimes the former is so obscured by the latter it’s difficult to see what’s us and what’s just a sum of the world in which we live, but for me there was no sense of pride in running a marathon. My reasons were tied up in projecting an image of someone who has it all, someone proclaiming victory in the race to be a perfect woman.  

Being able to run a long way or contribute time to a cause says nothing about how inspiring you are: it simply says a lot about where your priorities lie. I want young girls to have role models, but so often we shape our role models around problematic and unattainable ideas of what it means to be a woman. Those young girls don’t need to hear from a bunch of women who have achieved success in the normative sense of the word. They basically live inside a billboard for that picture of success every single day: success looks thin, rich and powerful, and accessorised by a sprinkling of adorable children.

Holding up this image of a successful woman feels like setting a generation of young girls up to fail. Prioritise family? Well, get off the corporate ladder. Building your career? Uh oh, is that the Bad Mother Brigade I hear coming after you? Care about how you look, you’re shallow; don’t care about how you look, you’re letting yourself go. Be strong-minded, but don’t be a bitch; eat well, but not too well; get eight hours sleep, but you better believe you’re the one picking up that crying baby.

Why do we seek inspiration in a way that ignores the fact that there is no one ideal?  Why do we hold on to this notion that there is some kind of hierarchy of success out there to which young women should aspire? I’m going to make an assumption that not one woman on that panel would have been a woman who had spent the last ten years raising a family. Not raising a family AND. “Just” raising a family. Because that wouldn’t be enough: raising a family is a side-project, something you’re expected to do on top of your career and your pro bono work and your camellias and your marathon and your Wednesday night date night with your beloved husband. 

I don’t subscribe to this myth that there are inspiring women, and by default “just women”; and I feel a far greater sense of accomplishment to be able to finally project an image that doesn’t leave this gaping sense of hollowness than I get from running any distance.