Monday, 2 January 2012

sometimes it's hard to be a woman

When I saw Jumpy (April De Angelis, Royal Court), early in November, I fully intended to write about it here, but – as ever – time and deadlines and small children and myriad tedious minutiae intervened. Instead I had a good rant about it with a friend who shared my misgivings and thought I might leave it at that. But then, unexpectedly and in passing, I had a conversation about it with another friend just before Christmas, and was fired up all over again. She loved the play, in a feel-good, Saturday-night-show kind of way, but the thing she said about it that made my heart go cold was this: “It made me worry about my neck.”

Jumpy revolves around a woman called Hilary, a committed feminist who cherishes memories of protesting at Greenham Common and works in adult literacy; a worthy, idealistic, liberal sort who is pushed to the edge by the stresses of turning 50 and the belligerent, capricious behaviour of her obnoxious teenage daughter. On the plus side: Hilary was played by Tamsin Greig. Swoon! On the down side, to be brutally honest, was just about everything else.

No, let's be fair. While the audience around me rocked with laughter, I watched Jumpy through a fog of depression: my daughter is only four, but I already have to deal with the same arguments about clothes, the same fierce desire for independence, the same tantrums and stubbornness and flouncing and refusal to listen to reason that Hilary encounters from her daughter, Tilly, and Tilly is 15. Do I want to fight this war for another decade and more? De Angelis's acute portrayal of the mother-daughter relationship makes my future look relentlessly grim.

It took a day or two for that gloom to clear, and that was when I started asking questions about the play. Why is Hilary so ineffectual? Why is she so timorous regarding abortion? Why are the other adult female characters polarised caricatures of sexual voracity and frigidity? Why are we presented with a smart, inquiring, politicised woman, only to see her become obsessed with her own sexual attractiveness, mind-addled by empty flattery? Where's the feminism in all this?

Perhaps – like Caroline McGinn, whose Time Out review is impeccably judged – I freighted Jumpy with too much expectation. As it happened, in the week that I saw the play I was in a particularly uncompromising mindset, sharpened by reading two feminist books simultaneously: Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born (I'm taking this one slowly, savouring it) and Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman. I had problems with the latter: Caitlin says in the acknowledgements that she wrote it in “an urgent, five-month blur”, and it really shows. The book is catalogued as humour first, feminism second, so maybe it's unfair to expect crisp and rigorous argument from her, but a lot of her reasoning – particularly in what might have been key chapters, on fat/body issues, and why it's OK not to have children, and how to deal with sexism – is sloppy, unresolved and curiously unconvincing. It's frustrating, partly because I didn't have the compensating pleasure of finding her jokes funny (good God that sounds bitchy), partly because when her breezy, sardonic prose is ignited by deep-in-the-gut anger, particularly at the abhorrent influence of porn on women's body image and the idiocy of pubic waxing, she comes across as pretty sage. I read most of it thinking: I'm too old for this – which was weird, as she and I are almost exactly the same age. What I mean is that it feels mostly like a first primer in feminism for girls: already I'm planning to put my copy on my daughter's bedside table when she's, I don't know, 10 or 11, if only so she can discover what a waste of time and resources boys and Brazilian waxes and fashion magazines are from someone other than me. I might, however, have to score out the sentence: “Childbirth gives a woman a gigantic set of balls.” I thought the line was mildly absurd, but a friend (who doesn't have children) found it positively offensive: women without children are not deficient in boldness or bravery, and what woman wants a gigantic set of balls, anyway?

If Caitlin's book is like a three-hour gossip on the phone between teenagers, Adrienne Rich's is a calm, generous lecture from a wise-woman to her disciples. Her prose, plain yet teeming like a handful of fresh earth, pulses with knowledge: knowledge she gleans from nature, her own body, the shifting mysteries of the moon (it's a very 1970s book); and from evidently scrupulous but lightly worn research. Reading it makes me feel serene, because she has felt some of what I feel, asked some of the same questions about ignominious social forces and found out some possible answers; and furious at the centuries of degradation of women's experience, intelligence, feelings and abilities that she details. Here she is, clear-eyed and judicious, slicing through the sentimental mush that swathes the very idea of motherhood:

The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery of sweated labor because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways which the forced laborer does not know; he can hate and fear his boss or master, loathe the toil; dream of revolt or of becoming a boss; the woman with children is a prey to far more complicated, subversive feelings. Love and anger can exist concurrently; anger at the conditions of motherhood can become translated into anger at the child, along with the fear that we are not “loving”; grief at all we cannot do for our children in a society so inadequate to meet human needs becomes translated into guilt and self-laceration. This “powerless responsibility” … is a heavier burden even than providing a living – which so many mothers have done, and do, simultaneously with mothering – because it is recognised in some quarters, at least, that economic forces, political oppression, lie behind poverty and unemployment; but the mother's very character, her status as a woman, are in question if she has “failed” her children.

It's the generosity of Rich's thought, her consideration of the experience not just of white middle-class women but women of different nationalities and ethnicities and social classes and periods of history, that make this book so vital. I feel challenged by her scepticism of socialism and other patriarchal utopian ideals, inspired by her commitment to the goal of social change despite the centuries of conditioning that must first be overturned. She makes me think, think hard, about the ways I might contribute to effecting that change.

De Angelis' Hilary has spent her life trying to make those contributions, too: De Angelis signals as much in the character's wistful references to Greenham, in her choice of work, in her even-handed attempts to bring up her daughter Tilly as a thinking, conscientious, self-respecting woman. Tilly is at once the apotheosis and the antithesis of feminist hope: she has freedom of choice, but most of the choices we witness her making – the ridiculous heels in which she can't actually walk, the ogling of footballers, the easy censure of perfectly normal female bodies – suggest dispiritingly that capitalist media have won where her mother and, by extension, old-fashioned feminism have failed.

Is De Angelis dramatising the arguments that surround feminism, the fear/criticism that the various movements of the past several decades haven't achieved enough, haven't inspired genuine change? Or is she voicing that criticism herself? It's hard to tell, because the play – like Hilary – lacks the courage of its convictions either way. Hilary says all sorts of right-on things: she denounces plastic surgery as a death-trap, life without the pill as medieval, burlesque as middle-class stripping (what a po-faced attitude that one is). But when it seems her daughter is pregnant, she organises a “conference”, attended by Tilly's single-teenage-mum best friend, ostensibly to help Tilly to decide what to do, yet shows no ability to guide her daughter or, importantly, to talk about abortion openly and fearlessly. And faced with emotional crisis, Hilary does the dramatically conventional thing: she rejects her husband, snogs her daughter's boyfriend's father, then has sex with her daughter's next boyfriend. It's not so much that the plot is beneath her, but beneath me: this is the stuff of trashy magazines, magazines I gave up reading years ago.

My friend David asked a pertinent question when, fug clearing, I told him about the play: does it show the trap, or is it the trap? Does it demonstrate what capitalism, the media, institutional patriarchy do to vulnerable women, or does it do those things itself? I would argue the latter. Caitlin Moran, in one of her more common-sense moments in How To Be a Woman, makes a useful suggestion: when uncertain whether something constitutes sexism, one should ask, are the men doing it too? Hilary's crisis is matched, indeed fuelled, by that of Tilly's boyfriend's father – but when they kiss, it's because he makes it happen, and when she doesn't see him for weeks, it's because he discovers Buddhism and achieves a modicum of dignity and empathy. Hilary's crisis is also mirrored by that of her (childless) friend Frances, who deals with it in forthright fashion: by creating and performing an amateur burlesque routine. The rest of the audience found it hilarious, but to me, this scene was excruciating: the way it's staged, Frances loses all dignity. She has no self-awareness, no idea just how foolish she appears.

The text simply says the routine is challenging and unfinished, and, as ever, I find it impossible to distinguish between what De Angelis intended by it and what was projected by the direction and performance. But the scene on stage encapsulated everything that irritated me about Jumpy. Rather than stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its female characters, the play diminishes and trivialises them. It niggles at ageing women and refuses them the grace of self-acceptance. Writing about it, I make it sound as though it's stripping the veneer of confidence and bravery from modern women, but I didn't get the impression that that was what it was doing when watching it. It felt as though De Angelis was simply doing what most other modern media do: making women feel inadequate. We already have adverts, newspaper articles, celebrity photographers, fashion designers, high street shops, and on and on, making women worry about their necks. Do we really want theatre doing it, too?

I've been tinkering away on the above for the past fortnight, and it feels like a horribly curmudgeonly way to bring in the new year. Progress was hampered by the making of umpteen mince pies, finally seeing – and being totally mesmerised by – The Red Shoes, and also by an idiotic accident a week ago, when I nearly sliced off a fingertip while trying to cut into a recalcitrant pomegranate. Even though I know in my own soul how strong a hold the Orthodox religion has on Cypriot identity, I was still startled to see gold-leaf icons on the walls in the A&E room in the new hospital outside Limassol. I had another, happier kitchen accident with a jar of mincemeat that my Auntie Tina left in Cyprus last year: instead of turning it into yet more pies, I experimented with using it as the foundation for a cake. Thankfully, I baked it in a loaf tin, because as a cake it was a bit odd, but as less sticky sort-of malt loaf toasted and generously buttered it made an exceedingly good breakfast. So here's the recipe: a small offering that doesn't quite excuse all the sniping above, but at least starts the year on a less antagonistic note.

Mincemeat loaf

500g mincemeat

250g plain flour

3 tsp baking powder

4 eggs, separated

I started out assuming that there would be enough fat and sweetness in the mincemeat so more wouldn't be required; in the event the finished loaf was a bit dry, so possibly some melted butter could be added at the beginning, too. But that's what I didn't do. What I did do was beat the egg yolks into the mincemeat, then stir in the flour and baking powder. Then I whisked the egg whites to firm peaks, loosened the mincemeat mixture with two big tablespoons of the egg white, then folded the rest of the whites in gently. I then tipped it all into a 2lb loaf tin that I'd lined with baking parchment and baked it at gas 4/180 for maybe 50 minutes or an hour. After it had cooled I kept it well wrapped in a couple of tea-towels (but would have used tupperware if all Mum's boxes hadn't been full of Christmas leftovers) and it was still toasting deliciously five days later.

No comments:

Post a comment