How I became a feminist: My origin story and the importance of meltdowns.
The last few years every so often I burst into hot angry furious tears in public. I melt down like a hot weepy pudding. These are not linked to normal day-to-day anxiety, or deadlines, which cause their own tear-volcanoes. Today was a sudden, public Weepy Pudding Day, on a train from Waterloo. Before I tell you what this meltdown was about — this is my origin story.
Something pretty great happened a few years ago. I finally got out of two awful, endless back-to-back fuck-buddy relationships, stretched over three and a half years, which left me with roughly the same self-esteem as a stain on a toilet seat. Once the relationships finished, I shut everything down. I didn’t want the world in. I was off Facebook and Twitter for a while, I installed AdBlock on all my browsers, I unplugged my aerial from my TV and I only watched DVDs or streamed carefully selected shows. Both those two guys I’d been with were large porn consumers and I had watched alongside them for the first time, becoming quickly and similarly addicted. I stopped watching porn entirely. In fact, I stopped going out much. I didn’t see billboards, ad campaigns. I didn’t buy magazines, newspapers. I work in entertainment, mainly comedy, and many of my friends apparently started appearing on TV and I had no idea, leading to many weird conversations. To this day I’m not really sure who of my friends are famous. Instead I started eating better, I eventually became vegetarian (and more recently vegan), took a lot of vitamins, started going to the gym. A pretty selfish, self-absorbed, much-needed time out.
Slowly, slowly I realised I had developed an intolerance. I could no longer watch Family Guy. I started to see through the ‘ironic’ sexism. It was just sexist. Why are all these women treated like shit? Why doesn’t Lois leave Peter? Why don’t female characters get as many funny lines or interesting characters? Why is there violence toward women in a CARTOON? Why are these women secondary? I re-watched Princess Bride, horrified. In fact I couldn’t watch any films or shows without leading, interesting, complicated female characters with agency. A lot of my idealised cultural touchstones from my childhood were gone. Woody Allen was ruined, Jerry Lewis gone. What the fuck, True Detective — yet another story about idealised nude woman (I see dead nipples) in the forest having been violated. Way to make a female character entirely defined by her abuse and rape. Way to make make it a little bit sexy. I unfollowed or blocked even the most mildly sexist people. I cried after the Lego Movie in Pizza Express. Why was the lead female character passed around the men like a prize to be won? Why was she sexualised, romanticised? Why were there so few secondary female characters in a universe where anything is possible? Why did a girl ruin everything at the end? (That’s a summary, I’ve talked about the Lego Movie in detail elsewhere: Conclusion: Everything is not awesome). I had zero tolerance. I couldn’t believe I had ever watched porn. I remembered it with complete horror and sadness. Ditto JJ Abrams’ ruinous depiction of future-space-women in his awful Star Trek movies (again, discussed at length, loudly, to my most patient friends). I didn’t understand magazines any more. Why was I surrounded by images of women being treated like sex objects, but nothing more, like I had been. Why is this message being reinforced, why are women presented as secondary citizens? Why… why the hell had I not noticed all this before? Why are 85,000 women raped a year by men in the UK and why isn’t the government treating this more urgently, why is the overwhelming majority of crime committed by men, why also are suicide rates high for men, why are rape reporting and conviction rates so low, why are the police still not aware of what victim-blaming is, why do engagement rings still exist as something that mainly a woman wears and a man gives, why is it embarrassing to have a tampon fall out of your bag, why are children’s girls’ shorts much shorter than boys’ shorts? How could anyone ever be against pro-choice? Why are men in charge of women’s healthcare? Why are women always a lot younger in films than their boyfriends/husbands? Why no Marvel female superhero movies? Why heels on Wonderwoman’s new costume? Why are panel shows so male-dominated? Why is there such a thing as female slut shaming? Why do I shave my legs? Why do I wax my intimate areas? Why am I expected to do both? Why is getting laid depicted as a contest amongst men in film, magazines etc? Why isn’t it closer to 50% of heterosexual married men in 2015 changing their surname to their wife’s surname and not just 0.0001%? Why do empowered women still wear white dresses at their wedding? Why does the word broga exist? Is masculinity such a profitable yet fragile commodity that the media can’t bear to utter the word yoga? Why is the female orgasm not taught in schools? What… what do these people mean when they say “looking beyond her years” about a 15 year old girl? That level of creepy is surely a sackable offence. Why is the clitoris and labia cut off many young girls? Why had I not been even fucking aware of any of this before? Why am I suddenly so angry, all the time?
I was aware for the first time of all this and more, because I had unplugged myself. I took the right-coloured pill, I came out of the gross Matrix pod and I could never look at anything the same again. I had been in a little Normalising Cocoon. Everything is fine, this is the way it’s always been. I had become desensitised, never noticing anything, internalising, normalising. But now it all flooded in at once, and I could only see all this for what it really was, a constant barrage of images reinforcing this singular message — women are nothing. So the best they can do - the least they can do - is be sexy, then at least they can have some value. And that’s what I did in those relationships. I was numb, I was nothing. I wasn’t a person. I at least had some value to those men. Sex. But man, it turns out women are people too. And we can’t live like that.
This, this is my origin story. This is the story of how I became a feminist. And really I have those two men to thank. Thanks.
So at this point I think it is relevant that I am middle class, and white, and in a swanky developed nation with a railway that works (sort of). In LONDON. I should have zero problems with any of this. Also almost all my closest friends happen to be men, most of my heroes are men, most my favourite writers, film-makers are men. I like men a lot. So all this should all have been solved already. There shouldn’t be a word for ‘feminist’ over here, because it should be fully absorbed into the word ‘person’. The insane plight in many other countries includes constant fearing for your life, genital mutilation, complete disenfranchisement, victim blaming to the nth degree — stoning a woman to death for becoming pregnant from her rapist. Countries are at war, rape is used as an instrument of war. But here, in happy England — why do we still have all these issues?
Right now this is all I can do, try and address things here. This small corner of influence. Maybe change in my tiny corner will ripple. I’m in a privileged position so I should use that position to ripple as much as I can. I think it already has had an effect. I am an art director, I create images. I specialise in photography. This is my main medium, my tool. I am going to effect change through this. Because images are what destroyed me, I know how powerful they can be. We are constantly being presented with images of women as idiots, as flouncy sex vessels, as sirens, illuminating the landing strip for your cum. Coy, virginal, youthful, never ageing, fully passive, inviting, the camera a predator, leering, abusive, an instrument of ownership, of dominance. We all know the abusive, aggressive nature of the fashion industry, we all know about abusive photographers, we all are aware of the casting couch. We, we the photographers, are the actual people creating these images. Not the editor, not the newspaper editors, not the readers, not the viewers. We made these. What if we… stopped. Just tomorrow, all photographers just stopped providing them and instead just portrayed women as people. This isn’t about censorship. This is about making the world a better place. This is about taking responsibility for treating people well. For not abusing an entire gender. And while doing that, negatively affecting the male gender. Don’t kid your idiot selves that by being an implicit part of abuse is a noble stance against censorship. Because all this awful portrayal of women leads also to the limited, narrow, heteronormative portrayal of men. Of alpha males, of strong, emotionless men. Of men who treat women like crap, of lads, of virgin-chasing, sex-chasing, lager drinking, violence-loving morons. Those are the standards for men. Suicide rates are high for guys. Pornography has been shown to lead to impotence, clinical depression, emotional fallout. (Listen, I’m SURE there are exceptions. But the exceptions don’t carry any weight against everything else, against the statistics). What a sorry race of people we are to treat our men like they are blubbering sex-deranged, emotionally unavailable abusers. If we, the army of photographers, around the world, just all decided to stop portraying men and women in this binary, antiquated, abusive fashion, then… I mean… I really don’t think I would be overstating it by saying that would be the end of that.
At least, what a hell of a start it would be. Entertainment is the giant influencer. And things are already changing — visually, loudly portraying women as complex, aware, interesting. Nuts, crazy, weird, evil, dicks, lovely, sexy, brilliant, everything. We are all of it. Orange is the New Black, Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mad Max: Fury Road. Women as people. Women are not defined by sex or past abuse or boobs. We are just humans trying to figure the world out, like anyone else.
I speak a lot about this, and I’ve created thousands of photos of women. I’m pretty goddamn prolific. I’ve exhibited, and I’m very widely and regularly published, I’ve been interviewed about feminism in photography, my writing on it published too. These are small things really and I’ve certainly made mistakes, this is certainly a work in progress, but overall I think I have made a little tiny bit of change for the better. I’ve been criticised too for speaking out but really only by white male photographers who I don’t particularly think understand anything more complex than high-key lighting a bikini, and have seemingly never questioned anything before, happy in their soft Matrix cocoon. I think female comedians are not portrayed as idiotically and as vacant as they once were, and indeed I think there’s at the very least more of an awareness now. This is not a singular effort, it’s a movement in comedy of brilliant feminist comedians (both men and women) becoming more and more mainstream, and I am incredibly proud to say that I’ve been a significant part of this from behind the scenes.
So. Let’s get round to the crying. That’s the fun bit.
After all this work, after all this awareness. After all this effort, this EXCITING EMOTIONAL JOURNEY I’m on, combined that I spent a few years shutting everything out, nowdays anything will set me off into pudding tears. I have no recourse, I have no thick skin. I am raw. And this time, this evening, what sent me into meltdown was this image on the front page of the Evening Standard. No one will really notice this image. It is so excessively normalised. All of London will absorb it and it will take everyone, overall, a little bit further toward depression, stagnation. I was on the train, with my uncle, my dad, my sister and my dad’s wife (who is a writer on feminist subjects). I saw a discarded copy and I fell apart. My eyes poured forth like a natural mountain spring. It’s just a picture of some girls, my dad said.
“No. It is a picture of thighs. It is a picture demonstrating that women are only valid if they are sexy, if they are sexualised. It is normalising the idea that being sexy is like a tax on simply being born female. And no one here on this train notices this. We all just accept it.” I was loud, I was sobbing. There were a lot of people on the train.
“Let’s just put it under the seat here,” my sister said. Out of sight does work certainly, to an extent. My father’s wife speaks very little English. She had no idea what was going on, she offered me a tissue. I was a big smudged mascara mess. (Why do I even wear mascara?)
“It’s a bombardment. And we just live like this. We just let it happen. And no one does anything about this. After all this work that we’ve done, why does this picture exist? It’s because no one cares.” I was a gulpy incoherent puddle.
Let’s be clear, this is a well-taken shot, graphically interesting — the thighs are lined up in a way that creates a strong horizontal. I’m not suggesting that the photographer is necessarily sexist or meant any harm. He’s simply making bank. Equally I don’t think for a second that these women (although they are described as ‘girls’) were ever abused or taken advantage of. They are most likely thrilled to be on the cover, it’s a good picture of them, dressed typically for a muddy, sweaty, outdoors festival. Also, by the way, this is, like, such a mild image compared to so many I encounter.
///EDIT: I want to make it very clear that not only was their clothing appropriate, typical for a festival — what I would wear too — it is also completely up to the individual as to what they wear, what they choose to wear. I happen to be in support of what they’re wearing (I would wear a similar outfit at a festival) but my ‘judgement’ on what they’re wearing is irrelevant and should be of no concern, which is why I tried not to talk about the ‘appropriateness’ of what they were wearing originally. The media is obsessed with what women are wearing, the suitability of women’s outfits at every turn — whether they are politicians or actors — meanwhile the internet, even the courts, are obsessed with what women are even wearing when they are raped. When they are RAPED. My god. What an insane, pathological obsession. I take ‘feminism’ to be in celebration of individual choice, free from judgement. This article instead is about the media appropriating women, endowing sexuality where there is none. A very similar thing happens with photos of girls and young women celebrating their A Levels or GCSE results. Yes, typically girls statistically do slightly better than boys in exam results, so it makes sense to illustrate an article about this with a photo of girls. But — invariably we all know those seemingly innocent pictures of girls jumping in the air, t-shirts up to expose their bellies, skirts lifted up to see their thighs. Remember these are meant to be photos of smart young women who will be tomorrow’s leaders, creators, entrepreneurs, politicans, artists. I even had a photo of myself in The Times once for our year’s GCSE results. I was bending forward to look over at my friend. You could see RIGHT DOWN MY TOP at my boobs. That wasn’t the only picture the photographer took. But it was the one The Times chose. At 16 years old, I couldn’t quite understand why I was upset about it. I had my picture in The Times after all! It’s not that bad a photo, I don’t have big boobs so you can only see a little, and also it’s a good photo, compositionally speaking. At least we’re not bloody jumping! But I didn’t like it. That was 1999. It’s 16 years later and the media still has no bloody idea how to represent women.
Thanks for reading that edit. ////
So, we have to take so much more responsibility for our images. We have to endow full universality onto our images — if this was the only image that represented gender dynamic in the whole world, what would it depict? Is this just a completely innocent picture? And, surely the editor or layout designer knew what they were doing, even just intuitively. Hot girls sell is the normalised attitude. That thigh-horizontal sure looks enticing. Really draws the eye up on in there. Those shorts are real short. They’re a group of attractive, traditionally good looking, thin girls, mostly blonde. They are all white. More copies’ll shift. Men are real pervy idiots, aren’t they. And women will just stare in the hope that they one day will look as hot and finally keep their man. Maybe if they don’t get pudding at Pizza Express tonight. These are the normalised reactions, the normalised behaviours. The editor has indeed taken advantage of these women in the picture. I’m pretty certain the editor didn’t get in touch with these girls to pay them or thank them. They remain unnamed. Evening Standard is barely a functional publication as it is any more, they need something enticing on there. So many shots of women have graced the cover now. Here it is, young women on the cover of a newspaper across the entire city, free. Girls — this is how you get on the front cover, wear short-shorts. This is how you can be admired. The media created the market, a vulnerable, emotionally unstable market, and now they get to feed it. It’s all artificial demand. Unfortunately, this placement and use of this photo was intentional.
Suddenly in the middle of this awkward uncontrolled blubbering mess, amid a man next to us putting on his earphones pointedly, a geeky looking white man — in his 30s I guess? - came up to our seats.
“I just want to say, I’ve been listening to the full discussion, and I just have to say I totally agree with everything you’re saying. You have to keep going, keep having meltdowns, keep saying the things you’re saying, things will change. Things are going to change. Things are going to get better.”
I thanked him. I was mortified. I forced myself not to apologise, although instinctively I desperately wanted to. We exchanged a few more words and he went back to his seat. I thanked him again as I left. I don’t know his name, we didn’t exchange contact info, it was just support. Thanks, man.
It turned out I needed this. I needed a man who I didn’t know to be listening. Not for validation but because men need to be excited about change, as this is about them as much as it is about women. I needed to know that men realised that all this is for them as much as it is for us. It is about making the world a better place for all of us. Feminism is not about women. It’s about everyone.
Here’s the thing. We are all photographers. We all tweet and instagram and all of us take thousands of images. Not just me. You have thousands of images on your phone. Are any of them sexist? Racist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Abusive, or even just casually reinforcing regressive cultural stereotypes? Are there any images on your iPhone that normalise sexual violence or simply reinforce a normalised inequality? We are all influencers, not just me. We all have public impact, we all exert influence in our little corners of the world, not just me. Influence your corners well. Be a good person. Be inclusive. Be wonderful and idealistic. Stop being part of the problem immediately, today, right now. Be aware of the images you post, of the words you speak. Be aware of cultural and historical context, realise how hard people are fighting around the world and dying just to be regarded as equals and imagine what a fucking dick you have to be to just casually publish a reductive image of thighs, even if it’s just on your Instagram.
And so, in that anonymous man’s honour, let’s keep having meltdowns. I would like everyone to have one public meltdown today at a sexist image, even just a mild one. If you watch TV, see adverts, watch music videos, read magazines, or newspapers, I know you will encounter an image. I had shut it all out but actually, it is so important to look. To engage, to challenge, to be angry, to try and change things. Melt down. Loudly. Maybe sob. You will affect change. People will agree with you. Men and women. Everyone. And things will get better.
Keep Having Meltdowns.