Working with one (willing!) subject in a simple ‘studio’ set-up, give yourself five minutes ‘in-control’, take your portraits from any angle, lit in any way, without interference. After five minutes, reverse ‘control’ and allow the subject to dictate exactly how they wish their portrait to be taken – and what to delete. Compare the two resulting sets of images in a dialogue with your subject, be candid about what you were looking for and what they wanted from their half of the shoot.
I’m going to do something slightly different. Before discussing the work and sharing some images I’ll explain my reasons (and since this is an exercise rather than a formal essay, not in entirely academic language):
I felt here like I was being asked to do exactly what I aim to do in my work wherever possible (it isn’t always) anyway. There are exceptions and I will discuss these. That said, I am also aware that at times in our lives we might welcome another person taking control. I suppose this is really about how one imagines power relations to operate. Let me go back to Patricia Evans’ descriptions of two realities which I have mentioned before, one where you can only conceive of power over the other – a master-slave dialectic in which someone is always going to be either or; and a more evolved paradigm where you exist with personal power which is, in her words, about ‘mutuality and co-creation’. (2012, p27) It is tempting to think of the second paradigm as a fairy tale, one which ignores human nature, and I wish I knew enough history, psychology, biology or philosophy to be able to really begin to argue and critique these ideas more robustly – but the second reality is, without doubt, the one I aim for, the one that makes sense to me. Evans’ also describes how some people can envisage such a reality but do not have the confidence to live it, and I am likely to have been someone who fits that description. In life, I have not always been able to access, feel or express much of a sense of controlled or functioning inner power. I am concerned about how this course seems designed to prevent me from aiming for the second paradigm because the emphasis is always on the first and that it is designed to make me apologise for who I am when I have really done quite enough of that in life already.
In some ways (but not all), I was bought up or am perhaps genetically predisposed (or a mixture of both) to toe the line as far as is possible (except where it would be really useful, like managing finances!). I don’t like being ‘in trouble’ – I feel the primary other is always there ready to tell me off and make me feel rubbish about myself. I suspect being that way hinders me and stops me from being a more impactful or ‘louder’ photographer. A mixture of fear of upsetting people and due respect for others certainly prevents me from sharing images or publicising my work as I might. That’s not to say I have not upset people in the past and presumably will do in the future too – but consequently, I know that posting an image of someone which makes them feel horrible makes me feel shit. Once I shared images of my mother looking less than glamorous for TAOP A5 and she was very upset, understandably. I felt absolutely dreadful about it. Even back then though I would tend to check with paying clients before sharing any images on social media as I know people simply don’t feel comfortable or might not like the way they look at a certain angle. I rarely share work that I haven’t discussed with the subject, or at the very least with a representative, and when I post a blog with images from an event, I tend to tell the person who hired me to let everyone who features know they can get in touch if they would prefer me to remove something. One notable exception is the series of images I have made with Honor, a young dancer, for Oxford House, Nexus. I will discuss this more when I submit the work for A2.
What’s more, I would NEVER ever want to put someone in danger and that prevents me from sharing certain images, which I’ve taken in refugee camps, perhaps quite rightly. I am constantly questioning my role as a photographer for Just Shelter, the charitable organisation I accompany and document. And I have stopped one-time volunteers from using their phones to take photographs when there, potentially pissing off people who assume they ought to have more power than me. I am acutely aware of white privilege, western superiority complex and colonial violence as discussed previously in 2.5 and many other places online. I am also aware that the power structures we’re addressing here go far beyond the question of sharing images online and begin at the way subject and photographer relate.
But, I do really worry that all this stepping back from potential trouble, upset, or offense probably risks making me a bit of an ‘anaemic’ photographer.
I’m not the sort of person who would rush up to extremely wealthy people shopping in or near Harrods to photograph them, flash at the ready, wide angled to emphasise weirdness. (But then neither is Dougie Wallace anymore as he reportedly got fed up of being chased down the road and told to delete the images; hence the focus on dogs instead.) Saying that I do use my phone to take street photography of people I have never met, and won’t ever meet to get permission from, although less and less nowadays. But that is not to say I wouldn’t in the future – my phone was cracked and struggling to work very well so street photography was becoming more and more of a challenge. In addition, I was bored senseless by my own photographs and felt they looked like so many others on Instagram so have backed away for that reason too. However, as discussed elsewhere I have been trying to work out how to negotiate the ethics of photographing strangers and briefly discussed this with Michael Millimore recently when he posted a blog that looked at some of these issues for his documentary module. Street photographers have always been intrusive and annoying – but sometimes we need to embrace this side of ourselves and in some circumstances, sneaky, dishonest and overtly questionable tactics might lead to interesting work as Sophie Calle and Natasha Caruana have demonstrated for instance. What’s more, it’s actually very interesting for future generations to see candid shots, and it not only tells a story about the subject but potentially also about the photographer or society where such photography is possible. Somebody will do it, perhaps somebody should be doing it too, whether or not it’s me who’s doing it is the question I should try to answer.
Returning to the original task, I chose to share some work that demonstrated my approach which where possible or necessary or appropriate is all about negotiation and shared responsibility. It’s all about shared power and mutuality which is what this exercise is aiming to make us consider – as well, of course, the history of violence and aggression white westerners have subjected the rest of the world to, in particular via the use of photography. I have linked to an excellent article that discusses this violence and I will talk about why I’m trying to separate it from general discussions of power itself in another post.
Evans, P. (1996). The verbally abusive relationship. 1st ed. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media Corporation, p.Amazon Kindle 9%.
Millimore, M. 2017 https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/62395190/posts/1653149198 (accessed 10/11/2017)
Make a quick illustrated list of the ways that you might be in a more privileged position than those whom you have already photographed. This isn’t to make you feel guilty but it is a way into thinking about something vital in portraiture – the power relationship.
Violence and nurturing
One of the first photography books I was given as I began to take an interest was a Christmas present in 2010 from my son called The Recording Eye (1960) by Helmut and Alison Gernshem. There is something slightly frightening in the title’s phrase which triggers thoughts of cyborgs. I wonder what went through my young son’s mind when he first heard those words. Marianne Hirsh fills a considerable amount of type-space in Family Frames (1997) referring to Lacan’s mirror stage, to looking and seeing, the gaze and pondering the effect of a maternal eye that is interrupted with a mechanical one. She reflects on Laura Mulvey’s Visual and Narrative Cinema and identifies how active looking renders a subject objectified (156). Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1971) is packed with metaphors that link the camera and photography to dangerous pursuits such as hunting, a sublimation of the gun, soft murder (15), colonialisation (42) and she uses the word annihilates (41) to describe its power to cut through moral and social norms. Sontag explores the “inadvertent authority of the camera’s results” which suggest a very tenuous relation to knowing” (115) and it is this authority that is somehow extended to the photographer. If one refers back to Otto Fenichel’s thoughts about scoptophilic instinct and identification (1999, 327) looking is equated with devouring, sadistic incorporation, and even magical gestures, i.e. compelling another to imitate or follow.
Returning to a maternal gaze, another reading, perhaps less violent than the one above. Winnicot, Hirsh tells us, revisited Lacan’s theories and suggests “development depends on being seen, on being mirrored in such a way growth can occur.” In What Mothers Do Especially when it Looks Like Nothing by psychologist Noami Stadlen we are told babies “study their adults minutely” (106) and anyone fortunate enough to have had a positive relationship with their baby should recall simply sitting and staring into each other’s eyes for ages as laundry and washing pile up outside the dyad’s reality. I don’t wish to romanticise mothering because I am aware that not all mothers experience this, that even those who do are faced with plenty of other less idealistic moments, and it should not be assumed as a given. However, for those who do experience this state, it’s a very powerful process and babies who for any number of reason fail to have that sort of connection with a parent, part of which is delivered through the act of seeing and looking is in significant danger of not thriving. This is not to say that blind mothers cannot also have a rich and rewarding relationship. We, humans, have several senses and when one is lacking another will compensate. However, while we might interpret seeing and looking as a sadistic activity, it also contributes to an immensely nourishing pattern of behaviour.
So when we think of the camera and photography as an essentially aggressive activity, we are failing to consider it through alternative lenses. (Pardon the pun!) There is no reason all of the above can’t be true at the same time. (I am more and more convinced that it is better for us to grapple with life’s complexity, rather than attempting to distill everything into a neat and tidy story which falls into an easily identifiable right, wrong, bad, good way of comprehending phenomena).
Power, empowerment, vacuums of power
As evidenced in the current political shenanigans, a lack of power is not necessarily a helpful state to exist with. As a parent, I know only too well that one needs power to maintain a semblance of calm and routine. As a citizen, I would be horrified if there was a lack of power from the state protecting my family and me, even though at times the structural powers that I exist within, that provide the boundaries which make me feel safe are frustrating and irritating. I hate receiving parking fines and wish the powers that be would find another way to keep our council’s coffers funded but then I may not like any alternatives they come up with. I also know that those powers do not make everyone feel safe and there are sections of our society who feel positively threatened by the same apparatus. Nevertheless, conservatives who wish for the state to remain small and to keep its ‘intrusive nose’ out of their business with ‘red tape’ eschew state power. And socialist minded people invite greater levels in various degrees. Perhaps it is not power that is the problem. It is the abuse of power that one needs to be wary of. As a photographer, I know that my clients are far happier when I display some degree of power and authority because without it they may not have much confidence in my abilities. As a portrait photographer, I must hold on to my power (which is actually really hard for me to do) but in an ideal world, I must not abuse it, which is what various high-profile makers of visual culture are accused of doing recently. If we consider both interpretations from above about the role of looking and gazing, then we might begin to believe that the camera can be an empowering tool whoever uses it, i.e. the photographer or the subject. The reason I discussed all this is because I do not like the suggestion that somehow having power is bad or wrong. Especially as a female photographer who is also a single mother and was brought up to be cute, pretty and nice, and felt disempowered for most of her life. I will not disown or undervalue my power, nor will I plant it in the same space as those who abuse theirs. If one wanted to, we might use the term ‘patriarchal power’, and it is hard to deny the evidence pointing towards a great deal of violence towards the other in its history. Do not view my power through that lens. The power I have tried since becoming a mother to cultivate (not always easy) aims to be empowering and restorative and to propagate, independent, secure people. I absolutely take that into my photography as much as I can (again not always easy) and it doesn’t matter who I’m photographing. When I look at Shirley Baker’s work I think she was doing the same thing.
Yes, I’m white but I’m also a woman, a single mother, no longer a homeowner in a culture that barely tolerates such things. I’m privileged and challenged in equal measure. I do not wish to dismiss the huge injustices people of colour or sexual and gender difference experience, and appreciate where in the scheme of things I am situated. I understand I must tread carefully in certain areas and stay entirely out of others. But I also see that what is under-valued in our society about my status gives me certain advantages too.
I have written about my relationship regarding status and privilege to the people in Calais and Dunkirk at length, examining our colonial legacy, and linked to it in the intro of this blog. I photograph children often, there and elsewhere, and as I said, take what I have learned as a mother into the activity. I equate bringing up my children to holding them in my gently opened palm. I do not squeeze my hand shut or grip them tightly, and they can move freely. They have room to grow and jump off whenever they wish, and it is always open so they can leap back on when they need to. I try to approach every subject in the same way. It’s who I am and it may not work with everyone but I guess that’s why some portraits are better than others.
Gernsheim, H. (1960). The Recording Eye. 1st ed. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons.
Hirsch, M. (1997). Family frames. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.103.
Sontag, S. (1971). On photography. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books.
Fenichel, Otto (1999). Visual culture. Ed. Evans, J. and Hall, S. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University, pp.324-6.
Stadlen, N. (2004). What Mothers do Especially When it Looks Like Nothing. London: Paitkus.
Outline the positions of Stanley Wolukau- Wanambwa and Jan Hoek, and reflecting on your own practice – or how you’d like your practice to develop – draw up a manifesto for how you will work in future. Research manifestoes by Dada, Dogme, et al for inspiration.
“Fortunately, the colonial era is over and now is the time to find a way to heal the hurting wounds this era has inflicted” (Hoek, 2015) Mmm… This sounds like wishful thinking, and I’m not sure Hoek fully appreciates how colonialism persists. Nor how western corporate and governmental finance is structured, leaving non-western countries in the sort of debt which can never be fully repaid, and therefore beholden forever to states abroad. The following is from Wordcentric’s website, a self funded organisation which aims to highlight and educate people about environmental and social issues facing the world.
Many developing countries and billions of people are devastated under the burden of debt and trade policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO). In 1997, Zambia spent 40% of its total budget to repay foreign debt and only 7% for basic services like vaccines for children. If the debt had been canceled in 1997 for twenty of the poorest countries, the money released to basic health care could have saved the lives of about 21 million children by the year 2000, the equivalent of 19,000 children a day. The failure to cancel debts leaves the poorest countries in the world with nothing to spend on basic needs and much-needed infrastructure, leaving millions in poverty and destitution.
- The developing world now spends $1.3 on debt repayment for every $1 it receives in grants. Nigeria borrowed around $5 billion and has paid about $16 billion, but still owes $28 billion. That $28 billion came about due to bias in the foreign creditors’ interest rates.
- 7 million children die each year as a result of the debt crisis.
- In the 52 Jubilee 2000 countries, a total of 1 billion people shoulder a debt burden of £286 billion. It is interesting to note that this is less than the total net worth of the world’s 21 richest individuals.
- In 1999, $128 million was transferred from the poorest countries to the richest for debt repayments – EACH DAY. Of this, $53 million was from East Asia and the Pacific, $38 million from South Asia and $23 million from Africa.
- Canceling the debts of all 52 Jubilee 2000 countries would only cost one penny a day for each person in the industrialized world for 20 years.
In addition to debt, the way western finance is structured often means non-western land and resources are owned or worked into the west’s economy. Although written in 1968, John Gerasis, says in his talk Imperialism and Revolution in America at a conference titled The Dialectics of Liberation ”…he who dominates the economy dominates the politics.” (79) Earlier in the book Jules Henry in his recorded talk says, “…in 1951, 135 American corporations owned nearly a fourth of the manufacturing volume of the world. This says nothing about how much it controlled, how much is a sphere of interest, that is not downright owned” (58) Or “the social structures of the modern world has so limited the possibilities of existence that even emerging nations from which we might expect some new ideas, some new salvation, are forced into the old ways of predator and prey.” (54) In 2017 economic models are in a state of transition as we move from traditional manufacturing towards a digital economy, along with all the momentous changes that allows for. Much has changed since 1968, it is true, but so much of our society continues to dominate economically, and the west is still benefitting, as poorer nations prop us up. Even Aid , which we think of as being given to poorer countries somehow ends up serving the west more than those we thought it was helping. As described in this Guardian article Aid in reverse: how poor countries develop rich countries Jason Hickel writes, “… the usual development narrative has it backwards. Aid is effectively flowing in reverse. Rich countries aren’t developing poor countries; poor countries are developing rich ones.” Although a degree in economics would help to make a more concrete and fully rounded case, it is not difficult to see how the ongoing effects of colonialism continue to this day in our supposed post-colonial era. The west’s wealth was built up during and because of colonialism, and today the power that erupted then has found others means of dominating. The atlas may not be covered in pink anymore but the west’s financial coffers are effectively. What’s more the west’s economy often benefits when we import our own ideology to other countries because if we can sell a lifestyle, we can sell the products that go with it. John Gerasis talks about this; he discusses an “attitude in which they (the Americans) considered themselves to be led by destiny to impose upon the world ……their way of looking at things” (75)
Hoek’s failure to recognise just how structurally implicated the west is makes me question the rest of his argument, which ultimately strikes me as naive and uninformed. Saying that I am often plagued with doubts and wonder to myself, am I really only in a position to photograph other slightly kooky, middle-class but relatively impoverished ex actors – i.e. people like me? Is there really always the risk, and risk not worth taking, of offense, cultural appropriation and racist/imperialist insults? Should I stop documenting Just Shelter’s trips altogether, for instance? It’s an ongoing internal discussion I have with myself and no doubt will continue. I suppose the thing is, why am I compelled to document that story when I’m not a documentarian or a journalist? And my answer is always, how am I implicated as a reluctant oppressor (Areliella Azoulay’s phrase) in this situation and what can I do as a concerned citizen of the world to address it? I feel like I covered some of this when I wrote about Imperial Court and don’t intend to dwell on it for much longer. The fact is European nations and the US have horrific records, and much in our current world continues as ever it did, despite the myth we are civilised and advanced, and we westerners have lot to answer for in a number of ways.
Stanley Wolukau- Wanambwa sums it up perfectly. “Just as modernity is inseparable from colonial history, so too is the abjection of “primitive” blackness inseparable from white privilege. We would do well to question the contextualization of race in such photographic work, so that we might more clearly see the white skin lurking beneath its black masks.”
We have been asked to come up with a manifesto. I have tried and for some reason it feels trite. To summarise, the only thing I can do is approach each situation afresh, do my best to be respectful when that seems like the right thing to do, and ignore the rules when necessary if doing so feels appropriate instead. As I try to do with everything I tackle, I will always aim to question rhetoric from where ever it may stem, and query anything that feels dogmatic or questionable or downright false. One of the things I have noticed with photography is that sometimes it can seem that some people in the profession come across as a bit or a lot sanctimonious. I am aware some people I know may think this about me after I’ve gone to Dunkirk and written about it. So I am trying to refrain from lecturing or writing from a position of self-imposed superiority. On the one hand, I feel passionate that we as a community should think about the reality of hundreds of families and individuals living in the woods, and that it shouldn’t matter whether one believes in a socialist ideal or something more akin to a Keynesian trickle-down effect. The facts are people are living in the woods without any support, being brutalised by police, left outside of any safety net and it is just as wrong as things can get. On the other hand, what gives me the right to document on the few days I travel over there? I’m not volunteering in any significant way. I’m not a refugee. I’m white so laden with that history. What I lack in fiscal capital I make up for in cultural capital and am so on anyone’s terms am relatively privileged. But something about that feels patronising and makes me uncomfortable. Many, although not all, of the people I meet in Dunkirk seem more educated and more accomplished than me. And all have experienced things I can only imagine. But I can imagine and it horrifies me. In the end I think about how these images I’ve taken, many of which I have not released anywhere, and wonder if perhaps they might be of some interest in years to come when humanity looks back at its behaviour and begins to work out how it allowed so many people to die, to live without the most basic of needs being met, and treated with so little dignity and cruelty. perhaps they won’t be and it will just have been me who learned something on those journeys. Other than that, I simply aim to get on with my existence and see how and what occurs. I can’t really have any more of a manifesto than that.
Added on 19 November from another post I wrote on my Sketchbook blog: “And so it seems today, more than ever, if one were to give value to even a small part of Lanier’s thesis, we really need to get in touch with the routes of critical thought, be brave enough to criticise current and emerging ideologies, even ones that we feel most aligned with, to do so in a constructive and adult manner, and be prepared to receive questions and admit flaws in one’s own arguments. I was asked in one of the exercises on my course to come up with a manifesto in relation to my photography and I think this ideal would have to be at the very top of it.” (Field, 2017)
For the record here is a link to a number of manifestos that may be of interest. http://391.org/dada-manifestos.html
References all accessed 3 November 2017:
S. Carmicheal, D. Cooper, R. Laing and H. Marcuse ed., (1968). The Dialectics of Liberation, 3rd ed. London: Verso
Last night after I posted my response to 2.3 I read the following which says clearly what few are spelling out. “What if,” asks the poster on Twitter, “the content of Hollywood films is part of the problem?” (Jstor, 2017) At last, I thought to myself, someone has begun to touch on the bleedin’ obvious!
It’s a useful article which I might have quoted from if I’d seen it in time.
Ideology – it’s there you just need to recognise it… Look again at your national press and starting from a position touted as ‘common sensical’ look for images and texts that promote a view that could be misleading. An ideal starting point would be the series of national polls carried out by Ipsos Mori in 2013-14 and discussed here – www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/oct/29/todays-key-fact-you-are-probably- wrong-about-almost-everything
There are a few of things worth noting with this exercise:
- Before attempting to identify misleading reporting or belief systems which are different to one’s own (which is what this exercise seems to be asking us to do) it would be helpful to question WHY groups have certain beliefs and what drives ideology.
- Current thoughts about ideology: belief systems are not based on a consciously held set of decisions made in reason, rather people experience the world differently, and these differences are what encourages individuals or groups to adopt certain ideologies.
- One might then ask, what leads a person to perceive the world one way or another?
- Another concept to remind oneself of is that ideology, worldviews, Weltanschauung are held in the very language we use, embedded in our psyches from birth onwards. So, of course, ideology is everywhere. And yes, peeling oneself apart from the language we have been indoctrinated with since birth is challenging, which makes recognising it very difficult. However, once we are able to do so, it is helpful to ask ourselves why those beliefs came about in the first place?
- If we believe societies tend to construct a set of common-sense ‘rules’ based on the needs of that society, we might consider the costs and benefits, and question how one outweighs the other?
- It is probably helpful to consider the changing nature of society, manifested most visibly via the use of social media – who gets to speak and why (and about what)? (Krauss, 1997) and (Hawkins, 1997) If we are genuinely reaching a new paradigm where anyone is potentially able to speak, then we must accept this comes with some costs as well as benefits. These costs might simply be the fact that EVERYONE has somewhere to voice their opinions nowadays (awful reports allege people have been attacking victims of the Las Vegas shooting online). In addition, the old guard will inevitably feel the need to defend itself, and the louder the cause against it, the louder their own case might be. We may not always like the response. Social media allows people to ‘debate’ without structure, thought or many rules. If social media is society’s collective stream of consciousness, it looks pretty unpalatable.
- Finally, it can be quite easy to assume a sense of smug self-satisfaction and superiority, believing ourselves to be arbiters of some moral high ground, but as indicated in this amusing column by Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian, we may ALL be fundamentally awful, so it’s probably best to always retain hint of humility as we inspect and deconstruct views different to our own.
In terms of working through ideas about self and other, I have suggested it might be more useful to explore the WHY behind points of view that differ from the ideology I most identify with, rather than simply identifying the WHAT. Who we are, what we believe, and how we function within a set of beliefs is borne out of experience, genetic as well as lived family history, and wider social modelling; what’s more, these systems are not fixed, and just as our inner selves tend to be, in a constant state of flux. The self is seen in modern philosophical and scientific terms as a process (emerging since Hume’s work about reason vs emotion (1711-1766)), as opposed to a stable kernel that exists within each of us. So too is the ebb and flow of ideological trend. And as individuals we find ourselves being drawn in or swept along with what is termed ‘group-think’.
Alex Bertie’s images used in The Daily Mail
Earlier this week the Daily Mail, (which is an easy target, I know!) published an article with the emotive headline, “NHS pressured our kids to change sex“. The article purports to be telling us about parents who are worried about current trends in psychotherapy, which according to The Mail, favours believing young people when they express doubts about their gender. And allowing them to opt for immediate change, sometimes even overriding their parents’ views, or perhaps what the Mail suggest would be a more ‘common sense’ approach, i.e to wait and see. The writer of the article, Sanchez Manning, implies therapists are taking little notice of parents and allowing young people to start transitioning after an initial forty minute appointment. In fact, the words state children are being referred to identity clinics. A referral does not equal gender transition. (In my mind if a child contacts a doctor and asks for help with their identity, believing them and referring them as soon as possible seems sensible.) If it were true children were being pressured, the word used in the headline but no-where else, to transition, then that would, of course, be worrying. It may be that in rare cases therapists fail to do a significant amount of counselling before signing off such a momentous journey, but it seems a dubious claim. The issue is, no doubt, far more complex than the article suggests. Instead, it reads as an hysterical, fear mongering litany against gender change itself rather than a report about the process happening too quickly or without enough consideration, but seems (in reluctant fairness) to express a fear that represents the views of a significant section of society; a fear that says all we have always known is changing and changing too fast. Emotive words such as ‘railroaded’, ‘overzealous’, ‘alarming stories’, ‘brainwashed’, or phrases such as “parents are ‘terrified’ to speak out” or else terms such as ‘family therapist’ in speech marks indicating sarcasm are used to heighten the impact and render the story sensational and shocking.
What is also troubling, is the fact The Mail downloaded images of a well-known YouTube personality, Alex Bertie, who has received medication to increase his testosterone and is a positive role model for young people who may find his message comforting. He has used the images on his own social networking platforms to discuss how it felt trapped inside the wrong body and to show what happens when medication begins to take effect. The Mail used the images without permission to argue against his and many other’s people’s beliefs about who our children might be (which is itself another question worth exploring, see Alfie Kohn’s writing on allowing children to be their own person). The same images were in this instance used to argue for and against the same subject, albeit appropriated by one party.
Although I am sure there may well be some instances of ‘overzealous’ (Manning) therapy – there are after all overworked, stressed, under trained or simply downright incompetent people everywhere, in clinics and on newspaper staff – perhaps it’s worth asking why some sections of society find the prospect of gender dysphoria so ‘alarming’. We might consider parental goals. In Our Babies, Ourselves Meredith F Small discusses how parents are unconsciously driven to bring up a ‘certain kind of adult citizen’ (1999, 52). She goes on to explain that different cultures bring up their children in various ways, and cites studies which recorded collective parental goals. Americans, for instance, wish to instill self-esteem in their children – something, she tells us, which is not easily translated into other languages because it is not “part of the cultural milieu – it is of import only in a competitive self-achieving society.” (53) She compares the Dutch who value regularity, rest and cleanliness over self-esteem, or the Kipsigis who “load their toddlers with chores” since being able to support the family’s economic activity is crucial for survival. (54) Parental goals, Small goes on to say, are “insidiously unconscious reinforcers that make us who we are ….and ultimately in parent’s minds make or break the child’s future success as adults” since they are driven at their very core by the economic needs of societies. (35) In which case, how does a parent cope when their own underlying belief systems and unconscious ambitions and aspirations for their children are challenged in this way? It is difficult to talk about collective parenting goals for English children without data and facts, but it might be safe under such circumstances to believe that standing out from the crowd by redefining how they fit into our culture is likely to be seen as a threat to their children’s emotional wellbeing and therefore their future prospects.
The Daily Mail could certainly have explored this interesting subject with more tact and less shock factor; about how parents today are dealing with witnessing their children grapple with their identities, and perhaps looked at the reasons it could seem like more and more young people are questioning gender. The writer might have explored the changing way families function, the historical trend away from fixed, rigid cultural structures, and why they existed in the first place, and why some structures from the past may no longer seem quite as necessary moving forward. He may have looked at the sort of citizen our society will benefit from in the future, where different challenges to the ones our grandparents and parents were faced with will exist. Instead, he framed the article so that is was accusatory and fear mongering. Rather than interview worried parents as well as children with empathy and sensitivity directly, he reported gossip and hearsay as if it were fact. Instead of talking to the person whose images he stole, or even read his book, he simply (or rather the sub-editor) used the images to raise the spectre of disappearing children into an internet of groomed others.
I should note I have not read Bertie’s book and this exercise is not a critical review of his writing. However, his book, Transmission, has the following blurb on Amazon:
I guess we should start at the beginning. I was born on 2 November 1995. The doctors in the hospital took one look at my genitals and slapped an F on my birth certificate. ‘F’ for female, not fail – though that would actually have been kind of appropriate given present circumstances.
When I was 15, I realised I was a transgender man. That makes it sound like I suddenly had some kind of lightbulb moment. In reality, coming to grips with my identity has taken a long time.
Over the last six years, I’ve come out to my family and friends, changed my name, battled the healthcare system, started taking male hormones and have had surgery on my chest. My quest to a beard is almost complete. This is my story.
An article on Pink, a very different news platform to the Mail’s, posted this article in response.
The Daily Mail is well-known for publishing articles which they must later retract, for framing them within fear-mongering rhetoric, for blatantly pursuing an agenda of intolerance and distrust of the other. The UK tabloids are known to operate within a culture of sensationalism since it invariably means higher sales numbers. (Actually, The Telegraph, a broadsheet, published a whopper of a stupid headline last week when it suggested students at Oxford were trying to ban all white authors, and they positioned a photograph of a black woman underneath the headline insinuating it was all her fault – they later had to retract, although did so with far less fanfare than the original front page spread communicated.) We might say the motivation driving this originates in the need to secure large profits. One could also argue that the tabloids are all, to a greater or lesser extent, guilty of victim blaming, for instance, when writing about women killed in domestic violence. A study which looked at The Sun, published last year stated, “The most commonly identified theme derived from our newspaper research was how The Sun appears to hold women responsible for their own abuse. Replete with descriptions of men who have killed their partners as “spurned lover”, “jilted lover” and “jealousy-crazed”, The Sun seems to be insinuating that the woman is culpable, partially at least, for her victimisation.” (Lloyd & Ramon, 2016) For the purpose of this exercise, it is useful to ask how this equates to ideology.
The way sexual manipulators and abusive men are discussed currently in the news
Living with the Dominator (2008) is a useful and well-crafted book which identifies a range of behaviour-patterns recognisable in men who are abusive towards their partners, as well as ending with some more positive archetypes. The book was written by Pat Craven who devised a programme to address domestic abuse while working in the prison system. At the end of each chapter, which outlines an abusive trait in detail in the form of an archetype, Craven points to how beliefs held by abusive men are formed and reinforced by the society in which he lives. For instance, the Bully might watch other men behave in a certain way in sport and receive attention for doing so, or that his beliefs may be reflected in language. Craven offers the example of ‘a rule of thumb’ which she tells us comes “from a time when it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife with a stick as long it was no thicker than his thumb”. (20) Or the Badfather whose beliefs are upheld by generations of “political and media propaganda, which stigmatises lone parents, who are usually women.” (30) Conversely, in other cultures, it may be accepted that women and children are better off away from bad fathers, unlike in the UK, where the political and structural message is that it is always best to stay together. Another example is the Headworker who believes women are less valuable than men and again this is reinforced in jokes about women, in everyday sexism which people don’t even notice. “The Headworker’s view is that we lack competence and ability”. (50) She adds terms such as “Blair’s Babes”, (one that irritates me is ‘the girls’ when referring to adult women), and mentions some which refer to women as meat, i.e. “mutton dressed as lamb”, “done up like a dog’s dinner” “meat markets” or even “beef curtains” (51) to further show how women are valued or not as the case may be, and how it is reflected in our language. Craven lists 9 archetypes and of course there will be some crossover so that several traits might be found in one abusive person. The book seems ahead of its time, addressing the subject in highly accessible prose, and exceedingly relevant when we consider today’s frequent news stories about powerful men who use their position to dominate and manipulate those around them. (I am well aware there are women in our society too who are badly behaved but here I am addressing ideology and asking what underlies and promotes the trend in society that engenders the following statistics?
In Britain 112 women a year are killed by a male partner or former partner. (Home Office 2007)
In Britain 22 men a year are killed by a female partner or former partner. (Home Office 2007)
Even now I would suggest that few people are really asking questions about what is it about our society that leads someone like Harvey Weinstein to behave in such an extraordinarily strange and bizarre way. One only needs to listen briefly to the recorded tape of him pleading with a female actor to accompany him to the bathroom to fully comprehend just how utterly pathological his behaviour is. He sounds like a grotesque, tyrannical toddler because I would hazard a semi-educated guess, that is where his horrifically inflated but also eviscerated ego has been arrested. And although he is a particularly powerful example, so all the more dangerous, there are far too many men who appear to be trapped in a kind of deeply stunted ego paradigm which allows them to have this desperately troubling relationship with women. To talk of ‘evil’ is lazy and unhelpful. Our culture engenders the behaviour, encourages women to collude or at best simply put up with it, and propagates it through media and structural realities. The symptoms are currently being discussed but the causes have barely been touched upon.
What is that makes women feel as much as a product as the array of cosmetics she must buy to make herself look female? What is that drives some men to see women as products, things to be owned or shaped according to their needs? As a student, I feel like there is much more to read and understand, but I am certain it relates to the way in which everything about our lives is monetized. Or how we exist in a reality where we are expected to ‘market’ ourselves to each other or even to ourselves. Or how we can only see ourselves in terms of something to be advertised, for instance how so many of us use social media to create a marketable concept – which is who we are, or who we want the buyers to think we are.
Nevertheless, at the moment the hegemonic worldview, the one which has governed our existence for some time, is being challenged across a variety of areas from women’s continued lack of status in society to the choices we make about self-identity. Langauge itself is changing, and people are finding platforms as well as their voice to speak about issues that were hitherto ignored by the mainstream. As this happens, a complex system of ideological weights and pulleys can be seen swinging into action. Once opinions sway too far from the perceived position of ‘common sense’ for a society to process, an opposite view seems to comes into play, perhaps in an attempt to bring it back to a more comfortable place for the majority. I do not underestimate the potential danger inherent in this, and although believe in doing ones’ utmost to try to see another’s position, am also in favour of being intolerant of intolerance. Even so, this may not automatically always mean one or the other is ‘right’ but rather we might view the process as related to collective social identity trying to grapple with itself and the evolutionary changes it must address in order to evolve.
Something we are becoming more certain of relying on, however, is our brain’s inability to see someone else’s point of view. Or rather its tendency to become entrenched with the view that supports its own outlook. As discussed in an article following the final presidential debates in 2016, we humans are not good at agreeing with others who hold opposing views. “The human brain is constantly filtering the world in a manner that reinforces the goals and values of our favorite group—whether that involves political affiliations, national identities or our hometown baseball team.” And that it’s really important for us to remember to question our own preconceptions. “When you identify with a group—whether that’s a political party, sports team, or nation—it changes how you interpret the world. We see what we want to see. But this can be a huge problem in a democracy, because people are walking around with different version of reality in their own heads….…Building [
these] checks into your thinking will help you remained tethered to reality while your political opponents luxuriate in fantasy—or retreat to conspiracy.” (Van Bavel, 2016)
References in order of appearance accessed 1 November 2017
Small, M. (1999). Our babies, ourselves. New York: Anchor Books.
Craven, P. (2008). Living with the dominator. Kinighton: Freedom Programme.
I came across Andrew Jackson’s incredibly helpful post on bel hooks. “As a writer, she chose the pseudonym, bell hooks, in tribute to her mother and great-grandmother. She decided not to capitalize her new name to place focus on her work rather than her name, on her ideas rather than her personality.” (BlackPat.org)
Jackson shared a recorded talk by hooks which explores the impact of popular culture in our collective realties. She questions the way narratives are shaped in order to perpetuate patriarchy, white supremacy, violence, societal and individual collusion, as well as an oversimplification of complexity in the way we understand and respond. She espouses critical thought, and suggests it can be transformative for people.
Finding this video at this time is serendipitous; it will be extremely useful when writing about exercises in the rest of section 2 and particularly 2.3, which asks us to look at how ideology is everywhere. I have over the last couple of years become extremely interested in the way popular culture operates so I am looking forward to writing about this. I am also fascinated by the way in which ideology is transmitted via various cultural mechanisms, including popular culture but certainly not limited to that aspect alone. It really is everywhere , as it would be – it contributes to the material we use to construct our interfaces, objective and subjective, that allow us to exist in the world.
Ideology – its there you just need to recognise it… Look again at your national press and starting from a position touted as ‘common sensical’ look for images and texts that promote a view that could be misleading. An ideal starting point would be the series of national polls carried out by Ipsos Mori in 2013-14 and discussed here – http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/oct/29/todays-key-fact-you-are-probably- wrong-about-almost-everything
Refs. accessed 24 October 2017