Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Cupcake Fascism

I haven't published a blog post in quite some time because I have been unexpectedly busy over the last month. Since my schedule is yet to alleviate I thought it might be some time before I was able to write something. However, today I came across an article that enraged me to such an extent that I cannot possibly restrain myself from writing a rebuttal. 

What, you may wonder, could have evoked such apoplectic rage in this gentle soul? The Guardian today published an article portraying cupcakes as abominable and decrying their ubiquity as a form of fascism. As someone who bloody loves a good cupcake, I could not in good conscience let such a slander go unchallenged.

To start, author Tom Whyman pronounces that the cupcake "possesses none of the ideal essence of cakiness"; it is "neat, precise and uniform... dry, polite and low-fat." That is indeed a disparaging list of adjectives and I am left wondering where this poor sod has been acquiring his cupcakes. A good cupcake is absolutely smashing. Festooned with a crown of buttery, creamy magnificence, a cupcake is just as decadent as its full-sized brethren, just travel sized for your convenience. I know many splendid perveyors of baked goods who produce glorious concoctions stuffed full of jam, chocolate mousse, praline, gooey salted caramel, nuts and generously sized chocolate chunks. These gastronomical masterpieces are not uniform or polite and they are certainly not low-fat. 

I think poor Tom Whyman may have let his inexplicble bias against cupcakes blind him from their numerous advantages. He misconstrues their size as an attempt for "flat-stomached people who think consuming sweet things is 'a bit naughty'" to stop themselves from over-indulging. I don't eat cupcakes because I am under some illusion that they are somehow healthier due to their diminutive size. I don't eat cupcakes because I am trying to count calories or watch my figure. If I want to consume a whole, full-sized cake, I will do so. Unfortunately, cakes can be somewhat cumbersome and, luckily for me, cupcakes offer a far more convenient and portable alternative. I don't have the time to faff around acquiring crockery, cutlery and, ideally, a table every time I want to enjoy some sugary, spongey goodness. The cupcake, with its little paper cup negating the need for a plate, can be consumed anywhere and at any time.

Another advantage to the humble cupcake is the opportunity for variety. Tom Whyman seems to think that there is something inherently limiting about the cupcake. He dscribes them as "restrictive", "uniform" and "neat and predictable." But cupcakes are the very opposite of limiting and restrictive. The variety of available cupcake flavours these days is frankly mind-boggling. And, due to their small size, one is able to partake of a myriad of flavours in one go. If I eat a full-sized cake, I'm stuck with the same flavour from start to finish. If I eat four cupcakes (which, as friends and family will testify, I regularly do), I get a plethora of creative and varied flavours in one sitting! 

Tom Whyman goes on to argue that the "austerity of the cupcake-form" supposedly prevents us from embracing "the joy of being open to genuinely alternative possibilities." It utterly baffles me how anyone could argue that cupcakes prevent us from embracing alternative possibilities. The small size of the cupcake actually encourages risk taking. You might not be entirely convinced by a bacon, walnut and maple syrup cupcake, but you might as well give it a go since it's only little! Nothing encourages gastronomical discovery quite like the humble cupcake.

So, my poor Tom Whyman, I almost feel sorry for you for having evidently endured an entire lifetime of underwhelming cupcakes. I say 'almost' because once you are done disparaging the tiny but mighty cupcake, you then go on to disparage those who enjoy cupcakes and then I loose all sympathy for your plight; I will defend my fellow cupcake lovers with all the linguistic fortitude I can muster. 

Whyman's most damning criticism of cupcakes is that they are infantillising. The cupcake is for "never-never-land" adults; if you enjoy cupcakes you are "a cognitive child... drily conforming to a prescribed set of rules." Apparently my love for cupcakes has revealed me to be cognitively impaired and unable to "engage with the world in a way characterised by the joy of possibility." People who enjoy cupcakes are seemingly both stupid and narrow-minded; how infuriatingly patronising.

Tom Whyman's article is not the first time I have come across the argument that cupcakes are infantillising. It seems to be a pretty common opinion that those who enjoy cupcakes are developmentally regressive and desperately trying to cling on to an idealised childhood devoid of intellectual challenges or cognitive burdens.

Cupcakes are apparently infantallising because they are enjoyed by children. But there is something somewhat insidious with this argument. Fish and chips are enjoyed by children. As is mac and cheese. And yet these foods are not labelled as infantallising and those that enjoy them are not accused of "neurotically trying to remain a child." Why do cupcakes inspire such a fervently negative reaction compared to other beloved childhood foods?  Cupcakes are distinguished from other childish foods in that they are intrinsically feminine; cupcakes are not overwhelmingly associated with children but with women. Cupcakes have therefore been deemed by some people as childish and silly because women are still seen as childish and silly. The backlash against cupcakes is just part of a bigger problem in which anything associated with women or 'girliness' (the colour pink, dresses, the nursing profession) is seen as inferior or frivolous. 

I am an ambitious, intelligent, career-driven woman. My love of cupcakes is not an anathema to this. In fact, the conveniently portable cupcake fits perfectly into my busy, hectic, mentally stimulating lifestyle. So can people please stop denigrating things which are overtly 'girly' or feminine. It's not girliness which is the problem; it's the perception of girliness as inferior which is problematic. And someone please get Tom Whyman a good cupcake, maybe four...

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Female Bodies in Film

It is perhaps an understatement to say that Hollywood does not have the best relationship with the female body. Too often, female characters in films exist purely as bodies. There is no character development, their dialogue (should they have any) is bland or pandering to the male lead, and they contribute little to the plot. Female characters are used frequently to titillate, to act as window-dressing to the swashbuckling hero’s tale, but not to contribute to the storyline in any meaningful way. I couldn’t help put ponder this unfortunate status quo while watching Spike Jonze’s delightful Her, a film which appears to subvert the Hollywood norm by depicting a romantic and sexual relationship liberated from the female body.

In Her, Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an emotionally stunted man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. The film is warm and funny, and the relationship between Twombly and Samantha is beautifully and organically developed; it only occasionally feels a little creepy. The film can feel a bit languorous (perhaps due to its over-abundance of Instagram-filtered montages) but the relationship between Twombly and Samantha remains consistently engaging. Samantha may not have a body but she feels real and weighty, and it seems quietly subversive for a major character in a film to consist of only a voice.

Films usually relish the opportunity to highlight female bodies and, in particular, female nudity. According to the New York Film Academy, in the top 500 films of 2007-2012, 29% of women wore sexually revealing clothes compared to just 7% of men. Similarly, 26% of women actors got partially naked compared to 9% of men. Only 31% of speaking characters were women and roughly a third of those women were shown in sexually revealing attire or partially naked. These statistics suggest a rather depressing fixation on female flesh as opposed to real, interesting, developed female characters.

In the face of this, Jonze’s film could be seen as a feminist triumph. Twombly does not pine after Samantha’s body; he does not idolize her form or fetishise her figure. His attachment to her grows through witty, insightful conversations. He values her for the emotional support she offers, not her flesh. And Samantha is a fantastically well-developed character. She is immensely curious, desperately eager to learn about the world and experience new things. She composes music, she draws, she has a charmingly dirty sense of humour. Most importantly, she grows, gaining more confidence and independence until it becomes clear that she has outgrown Twombly and their relationship.

But then, read in another way, Her and the lack of a female body seems less like a feminist victory and more like the unfortunate end result of an industry thoroughly uncomfortable with the realities of the female form. While the statistics compiled by the New York Film Academy show that Hollywood has no problem with female nudity, that doesn’t mean that Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with female bodies. The naked female bodies shown by Hollywood aren’t real bodies; they’re smooth and clean, like plastic facsimiles of the real thing.

The furor surrounding the nudity depicted in Lena Dunham’s Girls shows just how uncomfortable we are with realistic female nudity. Even now, nearly two years later, questions are still being asked about why Dunham’s less than model-esque figure is cavorting naked across our screens. It is immensely depressing that soft, rolling bodies are still shocking enough to warrant avid debate.

With this context in mind, Her’s lack of a female body seems a bit sinister. Hollywood would seemingly prefer to eradicate female bodies altogether rather than show one in all its unsightly glory: rumpled, patchy and sweaty.

It is also questionable whether Jonze really has eradicated the female body from his love story. Jonze could have chosen an unknown actor to play Samantha. Instead he chose Scarlett Johansson, a stunningly beautiful, slender female with whom the film-going audience is undoubtedly familiar. When her voice purrs from Twombly’s phone, it’s impossible not to imagine Johansson’s statuesque figure. As Manohla Dargis suggests in the New York Times, Scarlett Johansson’s “lush physicality” comes through Somantha’s voice. Samantha has a body in our minds and that body is firm and smooth and slim. Perhaps Her isn’t as subversive with regard to its depiction of female bodies as it first appears.

I don’t think Jonze removed the female figure from his romance because he’s scared of the real female body, in all its podgy, sweaty glory. Jonze is trying to provide a thought-provoking commentary on our current obsession with our smartphones and other devices. But it’s interesting to consider Her in the context of other films and their depictions of female characters. Her subverts the Hollywood norm of incessantly showing toned, naked female figures by keeping the central love interest off screen. But Her also supports the Hollywood norm by choosing the conventionally attractive Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the female lead and by excluding other, more varied female bodies.  I guess it will take more time for films like Her and tv shows like Girls to make a significant impact on how women’s bodies are treated on our screens.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Bits and Bobs

It's been a while since I've made a Bits and Bobs post which means I have loads of interesting links to share. Hope you all had a lovely Valentine's Day - mine was spent eating ice cream and watching Star Wars. I regret nothing...

- Have you seen those articles making fun of stock images? Now Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement is partnering with Getty to make a collection of feminist friendly stock images.

- Screw expensive couple's therapy - apparently watching and discussing rom coms is good for your marriage.

- Check out this incredible article about a woman living with retrograde amnesia

- I don't believe that violent films make people violent but I do ponder whether films are, in general, getting more violent and what this says about our society. I therefore found it interesting when Harvey Weinstein recently announced that he's going to back away from making violent films - here's an interesting article discussing his decision and violent films in general. 

- Apparently the most successful online dating profiles are the ones that defy gender norms. Thank god I have a masters in war, making me the most desirable person on the internet.

- the weather has been crazy recently! Polar vortexes in the US, snow in Cairo, flooding in the UK - I'm pretty certain a weather-borne apocalypse is just round the corner. It's so bad, the penguins are apparently on anti-depressents

- I love this 1866 pamphlet arguing for female suffrage.

- Want to listen to an incredible jazz cover of Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child o' Mine? Damn straight you do!

Have a wonderful week and stay safe with the weather. Maybe watch a couple of Roland Emmerich films and take some notes.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Barbies and Disney and Vogue! Oh my!

Photo credit: Robert Sabitzer

Last week, Vice President of design for Barbie, Kim Culmone, was interviewed by Fast Company about why Mattel retains Barbie’s impossible hourglass figure despite decades of criticism. It has been frequently argued that Barbie’s dimensions set an extreme body standard which little girls can never achieve, thus undermining their self-esteem and making them susceptible to eating disorders. Culmone responds to criticism by arguing that Barbie’s body was never intended to be realistic and was designed in such a way primarily to be easily dressed and undressed. Her design is apparently purely functional.

The interview isn’t particularly sensational: Culmone’s answers seem reasonable enough and Fast Company is hardly the first website to voice criticisms of Barbie’s figure. And yet the interview, and the articles it has spawned, has nevertheless left me contemplating whether or not my most beloved childhood toy has had a lasting psychological impact.   

I loved Barbies as a child. Being a thoroughly spoiled youngest child, I had nearly a hundred dolls and a bewildering array of accessories. I had the Dream House, several modes of transportation and, of course, an incredible collection of clothing. I would spend hours and hours acting out outrageous stories with my plastic, compliant minions.

So am I crippled with self-esteem issues? Well I’m a 20-something woman living in a society which places an excessive amount of importance on the physical characteristics of woman, so of course. But I don’t blame Barbie for this unfortunate turn of events. As a child I never once looked at Barbie and wanted to look like her because, you know, she’s a hunk of plastic. Barbie may be an unrealistic and impossibly proportioned representation of the female form but that never bothered me as a child because she’s a doll. I never expected realism from my toys; a child’s toy chest would be a miserable place if all toys had to conform to reality.

In fact Barbie’s figure may have been one of the reasons I loved her so much. More than anything else, what every little girl wants to be is a grown-up. I always preferred Barbies over all other dolls because, to me, she seemed the most womanly. Her ample breasts and hips were clear indicators that she was an adult and not a child. She was a grown, adult woman, with complicated relationships, a demanding profession (maybe a spy, maybe the president, maybe a ballet dancer, maybe all at once) and an enviable wardrobe. The stories I wanted to play out required adult characters and Barbie fit that role perfectly.

The criticisms made against Barbie’s figure are the same as those made frequently against the Disney heroines and their impossible waistlines. Ariel from The Little Mermaid seems to get picked on the most in this regard, perhaps because she was the first of the Disney renaissance princesses or because she spends a considerable amount of the film showing off her impossible figure in only a bikini top. But, again, I never once as a child thought that Ariel was a realistic portrayal of a woman because of course she’s not; she’s a mermaid. The figures of the Disney heroines are impossible – the same is true of talking crockery, flying horses, pumpkin carriages, and hyenas capable of learning meticulously choreographed dance routines.

Womanhood as depicted by Barbie and Disney has not left my self-esteem in tatters because what they’re depicting is self-consciously a fantasy – everyone is aware that toys and animated musicals are not real. But the women on the cover of Vogue, they are flesh and blood; they are ‘real’. Of course I know on an intellectual level that they have been airbrushed to the point of impossibility but my immediate emotional reaction to those glossy images is that the cover model looks fantastic and I probably didn’t need that 5th Krispy Kreme. The same is true of the models gliding down the runway in their impeccably tailored couture. Or even the street-style blogs and their constantly updated stream of super skinny (and overwhelmingly white, but that’s a point for another blog) women seemingly plucked from the streets in their day-to-day attire. If these living, breathing women can look so effortlessly fantastic just walking down the street, maybe I should put in a bit more effort before popping to the corner shop. Street-style blogs, the runway and Vogue are of course just as much a fantasy as Disney and Barbie but they masquerade as real and attainable in a way that I just don’t think Disney and Barbie does.

Of course it’s possible that Disney and Barbie have had an impact on my self-esteem and I’m just in denial. Research has been done which shows that Barbie does indeed have an impact on body satisfaction among 5-8 year olds (though I’m not entirely convinced by the rigorousness of the methodology). If Mattel decided to completely revamp Barbie to make her more realistically proportioned, then fair play to them. But it would be naïve to think that such a move would signal a revolution in portrayals of the female form, ushering in a new age of body acceptance. There are far too many other sources of negative body images, ones far more powerful than Mattel’s iconic doll.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Social Media, Performance and Self Identity

It is both hilarious and depressing how fervently facebook plugs dating sites to me

While perusing the interweb I came across this fascinating article on The Atlantic looking at personal identity asperformance. The article discusses the work of social psychologist Sam Gosling who looks at the ways in which people fill their spaces with personal possessions and tries to determine what insights these items can give into people’s personalities.

Gosling has determined that some items act as ‘conscious identity claims’ – things we actively choose based on how we want other people to perceive us (artwork or books we display, the clothes we wear). Some items are ‘feeling regulators’ – sentimental items or souvenirs that meet a personal emotional need (photos of loved ones, holiday souvenirs). Finally, some items are ‘unconscious behavioural residue’ – hints we leave behind inadvertently (an obsessively organised bookshelf might hint at compulsive behaviour). These conscious and unconscious cues, when observed as a whole, reveal something about the person who left them.

This reminds me of Goffman’s seminalsociology text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which argues that all social interactions are essentially performances. These performances are made of two aspects: the expressions that we give (symbols, verbal or otherwise, that admittedly convey information), and the expressions that we give off (unconscious actions that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor).
Goffman’s book was published in 1959, which limits it predominantly to face-to-face interaction (how quaint!), but Gosling’s research also covers the online world. We use cues to infer things about a person on social media in exactly the same way as we do in person. For example, Gosling found in his research that those who scored highly on the extroversion scale via personality tests had more facebook friends. So if you encounter someone on facebook with thousands of friends, it’s probably safe to infer that they are socially competent and confident individuals. Looking at Gosling and Goffman’s work in tandem, we can conclude that our social media presence is also a performance. We carefully curate what photos we post and what amusing buzzfeed links we share to put across a certain persona to anyone who encounters our profile.

But for whom are we performing? Goffman argues that we perform for ourselves just as much as we perform for others. Individuals perform even when there is no audience because it affirms our sense of identity. For example, in some mental hospitals in America, unclaimed deceased patients may be given elaborate funerals. This performance is carried out for the benefit of those partaking in the ceremony, proving to themselves that they are the kinds of people who observe standards of civility. We do not think of this as a performance, we are not purposefully trying to manipulate others or ourselves. As Goffman explains, people “sincerely believe that the definition of the situation they habitually project is the real reality.”

Combining Goffman and Gosling therefore suggests that facebook is as much a performance for ourselves as it is for others. The friend counter on our profiles not only shows other people how cool and popular we are, it is affirmation for ourselves that we have friends. A studyfrom the journal, Media Psychology, has shown that people receive a significant self-esteem boost when looking at their own facebook profile compared to looking at the profile of a stranger. This study supports the idea that facebook is a performance and that we are its intended audience just as much as our friends and internet creepers.

The author of The Atlantic article, Jennifer Oullette, says that, “our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.” But Oullette’s observation doesn’t go far enough. Our facebook profiles may indeed be identity claims but it’s important to remember to whom these identity claims are directed.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Terrorist Kidnappings: Why Don't We Negotiate?

 UN Security Council Chamber by Patrick Gruban

On Monday the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning kidnapping by terrorist and calling for an end to appeasing terrorists through ransom payments or political concessions. UK Ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said of the resolution, "it is... imperative that we take steps to ensure that kidnap for ransom is no longer perceived as a lucrative business model and that we eliminate it as a source of terrorist financing." The resolution does not create any new legal obligations but it does call on Member States to encourage the private sector to adopt relevant guidelines and good practices for responding to terrorist kidnappings without paying ransoms. 

I can understand why the UN would want to adopt such a measure; the UN estimates that Islamist extremist groups have garnered $105 million in ransom money in the last three and a half years. Starving terrorist groups of this source of income would presumably have a significant impact on their operations. And yet I have my doubts regarding this resolution.

The most obvious flaw of the resolution is that no one actually knows whether or not cutting ransom payments will be an effective strategy at countering terrorist activity. For decades, the western, liberal democracies have been staunchly following the creed that we should not negotiate with terrorists for fear of encouraging further terrorism. But terrorist activity persists and no one actually knows whether refusing to negotiate with terrorists has done anything to curtail terrorist attacks. Non-negotiation is not necessarily the best strategy, it's just that we can't think of anything else to do. 

In his book, Globalisation and War, Barkawi argues that a refusal to negotiate with terrorists simply creates a spiral of terrorist attack and harsh reprisal which de-legitimises negotiation and compromise and inspires more violence. Barkawi suggests instead that to counter terror, an effective strategy requires a combination of political and coercive means. Engagement and compromise with those the terrorists claim to represent whittles away at the legitimacy of terror, undermining the incentive to carry out terrorist attacks. We need a softer, 'hearts and minds' approach to terrorism.

A second reservation I have towards this resolution is that it shifts the balance of responsibility away from governments and international bodies and towards the unfortunate individuals who face the horrific decision of whether they should fund terrorists or leave their loved ones to suffer in captivity. It seems unfair that those taken as hostages, and their friends and family back home, are left to suffer at the hands of terrorists because national governments and international organisations can't think of a better method to counter terrorism.

Barkawi may not be correct. Maybe negotiation, compromise and dialogue will do nothing to stop terrorist activity. But I don't think that we should just blindly follow the same policy that we have pursued for years, to little effect, without at least considering alternatives.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Starting the Year as I mean to Continue: filled with cake

My new year's resolution is to go to the gym more (or, you know, at all). I've been pretty keen for a whole week now but all this exercise is making me kind of peckish. The solution? Baking, of course!

My wonderful mother and stepfather gave me a kitchenaid mixer for Christmas and what better way to break it in than with this amazing Oreo cake.

The recipe below is adjusted from a recipe I found on Pinterest. The original called for blueberries but I decided to substitute Oreos instead of fruit because I didn't want to accidentally eat something healthy with my cake...

175grams butter
1 1/2 cups of sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 cups of plain flour
2 packs of Oreos

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Butter a 13" by 9" baking tin.

Cream the butter and the sugar. And the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one. Add the vanilla essence.

Gently fold in the flour. Add the Oreos, crushed up a little, and mix until just combined. 

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45-50 minutes.

When it's done - eat and enjoy!