Spectator | Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

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Brilliance is intoxicating, and from the first chapter, Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others goes straight to the head. Things start like this: with an article on a website called ‘Women and Film’, by someone called Meadow Mori. Meadow reveals that when she was fresh from her LA high school, she had an affair with a mountain-sized filmmaker, who ‘sounds like the voice of America’, and whose career was marked by genius and frustration. It is, of course, Orson Welles; but there’s more here than scrupulous cinematic referentiality.

Is Meadow’s relationship with the F is for Fake filmmaker a truth or an untruth? And if it’s an untruth, does that make it a lie? A lie of invention, a lie about yourself, should not be called a lie, she says in the essay. Perhaps it is a kind of wish-story. This is a serious matter for Meadow, who has made her name as a documentary- maker — a kind of female Errol Morris, blending recreations with interviews in ways that fracture truth-telling but also establish irrevocable narratives about her subjects.

Read the full review at the Spectator

Guardian Review | Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine

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Cordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.”

Read the full review at the Guardian

New Statesman | Transgender Kids: why doctors are right to be cautious about childhood transition

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This piece was published yesterday, before the broadcast of the documentary. You can now watch it in full on iPlayer.

The BBC Two documentary Transgender Kids: Who Knows Best? won’t be broadcast until 9pm this evening, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from forming very firm opinions about it. There has been the inevitable petition, and yesterday, the Guardian published a critical article stating that “the transgender community is ‘very scared and very worried’” by a programme that no one interviewed had, as yet, seen. The focus of that concern is a Canadian doctor called Ken Zucker, who, according to his critics, is a discredited proponent of “conversion therapy” who has prevented trans children from obtaining appropriate treatment and was fired for gross misconduct.

But in his decades-long career, Zucker supported hundred of children and adolescents with gender identity disorder (GID), some of whom went on to live happily in their birth sex and some of whom eventually had sex reassignment surgery (SRS). The allegations against him stem from an external review commissioned by his employer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto (CAMH) – a review which was withdrawn from CAMH’s website after investigations showed that many claims were unsubstantiated and one key charge was demonstrably false. As the journalist Jesse Singal wrote: “it’s hard not to come to an uncomfortable, politically incorrect conclusion: Zucker’s defenders are right. This was a show trial.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Humanist | The Sex Lives of English Women by Wendy Jones

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In the early 20th century, the mechanical peep-show was invented so voyeurs could enjoy the thrill of seeing women in their unwitting naked candour. Of course, the peep-shows were a lie: the pictures were staged, there was no real privacy to invade. But the promise that women can be revealed as they “really are” has always been an exciting one. Wendy Jones starts her book with a version of the peep-show promise that also places The Sex Lives of English Women firmly in the context of feminism: “This book is not about how to be a woman; it’s about how women are,” she writes, presumably angling a dig in the direction of Caitlin Moran’s blockbuster polemic How To Be a Woman.

What we are about to see, it is implied, is raw womanhood. Jones presents us with 24 pseudonymous interviews representing the gamut of the English female, aged from 19 to 94. There are women from Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic backgrounds; black, white and Asian women; lesbians, straight women and somewhere-in-between women. Each one occupies her own chapter, written up as a monologue so it appears that we have unmediated access to her inner self. Like the peep-show photographer who keeps all evidence of himself outside the frame, Jones effaces herself. We are never told what questions she asked in order to elicit these answers.

Read the full review at New Humanist

New Statesman | Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton

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Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a writer at a time when being a writer was unusual enough, let alone being a woman as well. Before Daniel Defoe, before Aphra Behn, Cavendish wrote – voluminously, uncategorisably, turning out works of science, philosophy and fantastical fiction. She was nicknamed “Mad Madge” for both her eccentric outfits and her gender-flouting insistence on recognition. Margaret’s untutored invention has embarrassed even ostensibly sympathetic readers: Virginia Woolf, in one of her swipes of matricidal waspishness, likened her to “some ­giant cucumber [that] had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death”.

Yet strangeness suited the duchess’s purposes, in a world where “normal” com-passed a very small realm for women. “Art itself is, for the most part, irregular,” she wrote, and these words become the epigraph to Danielle Dutton’s fictionalised account of Margaret’s life. For Woolf, she had the profile of a mortifying aunt, honoured out of obligation but held at a remove for fear that her oddity might point to some congenital disarray in the “female author” as a type. Dutton’s sympathy and love, however, are offered more uncomplicatedly in this luminous historical novel.

Read the full review at the New Statesman

How to keep a reading journal

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In August 2014, my husband gave me a black Moleskine that launched a continuous habit of notebook-keeping. It started as a general mix of ideas, observations, to-do lists and quote-copying; by the end of the first volume (and yes I do feel absurdly lofty talking about “volumes” of my notebooks), it had turned into something that you might more strictly call a reading journal or a commonplace book (if you were Victorian-minded), and if you’re a reader, I strongly recommend you keep one too.

Here’s why: I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

First, you need a sturdy, portable notebook – because your notebook is going to be with you everywhere you might be reading, and you don’t want it to fall apart. That means your ideal notebook should be:

  • Hardback
  • Lined
  • Stitched, not glued, and able to open flat
  • Small enough to carry easily but big enough to write in easily (A5 is perfect)
  • Have an elastic strap to stop it flapping open and getting damaged in your bag (you could just use an elastic band, but you’d probably lose it, or remember the elastic band and forget your pen)
  • Have a ribbon sewn into the binding to mark your page

The best notebook in the world is the Leuchtturm 1917 medium, which has numbered pages, a table of contents, perforated back pages in case you need to rip a sheet out for some reason (you vandal), two (two!) bookmarks in contrasting colours (one for the page I’m currently writing on, one for the section I’m referring to for work), archiving labels, and a pocket at the back for receipts and things. But you can fill in your own page numbers and make your own table of contents in any notebook, and if you do, it will look something like this:

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When you’re numbering the pages, you can get away with just doing the odd numbers (see below), and obviously you don’t have to do the whole notebook at once: putting them in as you go works fine.

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You can see above that I used to date individual entries, but that isn’t very practical – a day’s reading might only turn up one line worth transcribing. Now I just date the top of the pages when I start them, as below (this is a section on The Bell Jar, which turns out to have an awful lot of lines worth transcribing):

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When I make a note, I always:

  • Start with the page number
  • Place direct quotes within double quote marks (some people like single quote marks but they are perverts)
  • Introduce my own thoughts or observations with a dash
  • Put my own clarifications or suspension marks for omissions within square brackets (if the quote itself uses square brackets, though, be careful to mark which were in the original and which you added yourself)
  • Write in black uni-ball rollerball medium because I am very relaxed and fun about this

You don’t have to make notes on everything (though it’s nice to at least have the title and a few observations recorded); you won’t find something worth noting every time you read. But I’ve learned that it’s good to scratch down anything that catches your eye, rather than spend ages trawling back through later on when you realise that the intriguing detail you almost copied out was actually the foundation of a critical pattern of imagery, or the seed of the author fatally undermining their own argument, or something.

Reading is always active, never passive. Words don’t simply float through your eyes and take up residence in your head: you make meaning from them, fit them into the world of everything else you know, find resonances that maybe even the author could not have realised were there. Yes, keeping a notebook is more faff than just reading; but it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and the satisfaction of seeing your notebooks fill up is more an incentive to read than an obstruction.

When you go back later and revisit your notes on a particular book, you’ll find that you’ve made your own version of the text, partial and overlaid with your own thoughts and ideas. I keep other journals (the to-do lists, ideas and observations now go into a bullet journal), but the reading notebooks are the ones that really matter. Try one.

We can’t have a women’s movement if we don’t call ourselves women

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When National Geographic magazine put together the newsstand cover (above right) for its January 2017 “Gender Revolution” special edition, it left something out. The cover is a group shot designed to show the range of genders now available in the heralded revolution, a cluster of seven people each annotated with an identity: “intersex non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender female” (a second one), “bi-gender”, “transgender male”, “androgynous”, and “male”. What’s missing? As feminists noted once the cover was circulated – but as National Geographic either didn’t notice, or didn’t consider notable – there’s no “female” here.

There are females, of course (at a guess, I would say three of the models are natal females and three natal males), but “female” is not counted as a gender identity. Female is written out. Inside the magazine, you’ll find features which reveal that, actually, femaleness is a highly pertinent characteristic: you can read about the poverty and violence inflicted on girls in developing nations, the pressures of bullying and body-shaming on girls in America, and how the two-tiered market in children’s toys might be harming girls through pinkification. Being female is a matter of life and death, but, per the cover, “female” is not a label under which people may gather.

Here I suppose I should concede National Geographic’s good intentions. National Geographic did not, I assume, deliberately set out to produce an issue showing that female people are exploited and abused for being female, while also announcing that “female” does not exist. Nor is National Geographic doing anything particularly new or shocking by deleting women as a class: reproductive rights organisations now talk about “pregnant people” rather than women in order to be “inclusive”, and even references to vaginas can be damned as transphobic. But if it the express motivation of this cover had been to tauntingly depoliticise everything the inside pages have to tell about the place of women and girls in the world, the patriarchy would give it a 10/10 for threat neutralisation.

It’s often claimed that “the binary” is in and of itself a patriarchal tool, and the role of feminists should be to “disrupt the binary”, as if even to recognise the existence of sexual biology in humans is to give warrant to sex-based oppression. What this cover shows is that male dominance has nothing to fear at all from the splintering of “gender” into multifarious “gender identities”. On the cover, the “male” is simply and unrevealingly dressed. He stands with his whole body facing the camera. Other models dip their heads beguilingly, or pose in three-quarter profile with a becomingly flexed leg; there are flashes of midriff and clearly defined breasts; the “transgender male” (a natal female adolescent) wears a dandyish bow-tie. But “male” has unadorned authority. “Male” exists in simple relief against the contrasting background of all these other types. He is the one, and the rest are all “other”.

One of the most marked qualities of the “gender revolution” has been that, where transsexuality was predominantly about males transitioning to live as women (with transmen making up a very small proportion of transitioners), the more recent framing of transgender has involved a huge surge in female adolescents presenting for treatment. As Rosamund Urwin of the Evening Standard wrote in a report from May on the Tavistock gender identity clinic: “Last year, almost twice as many natal females (929) were referred to the centre as natal males (490) and yet, until six years ago, natal males used to be the majority.”

How can we explain this reversal? In a way, maybe the surprise is that there haven’t always been more females than males making the flit from their culturally sanctioned gender. “Woman” is a role marked by inferiority and destined for service. As the editorial in the January issue of National Geographic points out, being female means being subject to abuses on a global scale. It means child marriage, bleeding in a hut at the edge of your village during your period, being taunted with smartphone porn by boys in school, being paid less than men, doing more housework, being told you talk too much, talk wrong, that you’re either unfuckable or only there to be fucked.

In the circumstances, wanting out of the class “woman” is eminently rational. And being a woman is only going to get rougher in Trump’s America. Michelle Goldberg is correct in her bleak, eloquent Slate column when she writes that Trump’s presidency means the backlash is on. Abortion rights, protections against sexual discrimination, action against sexual violence – these things will be the first to go. Even if you don’t “feel female”, you will be exposed by being female. A label is no defense against male violence. You can disown your body, but your body is too valuable a commodity to be left alone. It can make babies. It can make dinners, mop floors. It can make a man orgasm. You are a resource to be colonised, and simply stating that you are not one by refusing the title “woman” will never function as a “keep out” sign.

To survive, to resist, we need to organise. To organise, we need to acknowledge what we hold in common. Throughout feminism’s waves and wanings, that’s been the basis of every success: identifying the oppressions imposed on us as women, and working together as women against them. Our female bodies are the battleground, and we can’t escape that even if we deny it by claiming some variant identity such as “non-binary” or “bi-gender”. We need a women’s movement. Even those of us who think we don’t need it, will need it. And for that, we need to call ourselves – our female selves – women, without compromise or qualification.