Who's that girl?

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Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
jef to some, jen to others, jennifer if in trouble. 26. Glaswegian. lefty. clarinet tooter/singer/egg-shaker in the second hand marching band + TGC 'artist'.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Write On

When I was sixteen my English teacher dealt me a huge blow by projecting my Higher grade at a fail. At the very least, she said, I'd scrape a 'D'. I felt completely betrayed at the time and took it very personally. I realise now, of course, it was more likely she could see I wasn't quite living up to my potential and was trying to instil a sense of panic in me, to encourage me to put more effort into my writing. I'd always been good with creative writing and my grades reflected this, but I found it difficult to concentrate on the novels we were forced to read and particularly struggled with close reading; while enjoyable it left me confused for the most part. I didn't always read into the intentions of the writer in the way teachers wanted me to. It wasn't until years later I realised that teachers could be wrong, and just because the author said "the curtains were blue" it didn't necessarily mean anything more than just that. There were curtains. They were blue. I insisted on asking, each time I received a test back, how the teacher knew that the author meant it to represent an abstract concept, such as melancholy, and whether they'd bothered to ask the author what they meant by it. To this day, I still think that my interpretations were always sound, if a little plain. If telling me I was going to fail was intended as a scare tactic, then it worked. I smugly walked past that same teacher in the corridor later that year without so much as a greeting, or a thank you, once I'd achieved my Higher 'B' in English. If I could go back now I'd say thank you for the endless encouragement, not to mention the second - and third - chances she gave me whenever my work was overdue. It was always late.

The quality of my writing is always directly linked to how passionate I am about the subject. As a child, I wrote stories in my spare time, for fun. I'd spend hours devouring children's books and then coming up with fantastical adventures of my own. I borrowed characters from Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Judy Blume. At eleven, I adopted a tone as close to the style of JK Rowling as I could get away with, but my teacher was reading us the first Harry Potter book in class, so it was hardly subtle. I once wrote an entire Horrid Henry book, with illustrations. I submitted poems and short essays to competitions and almost always got at least a runner up prize. I somehow managed to plagiarise the Beatles  I don't know where any of them are now. I used to box some things up every year or so and put it in the attic, but when I went to look for the boxes in my early twenties, they were gone. My mum said when we moved house after she separated from my stepdad, there wasn't enough room to store everything, so she'd gotten rid of a few of my boxes. I was upset, but there wasn't anything specific in the boxes that I could call to mind, just years' worth of fiction, old school jotters and artwork. Sometimes snippets of a story I wrote as a child will come back to me, but it's usually lost a moment later.

Much like many of the friends I have now, when I reached my late teens I took to Livejournal in order to pour out my thoughts and feelings. I took great time detailing the events of my life. I always felt it was cathartic to really analyse my feelings and my relationships with other people and while some of my friends seem to go down the 'wah wah my boyfriend broke up with me' route, I tried to be articulate and coherent, focusing on making sure my entries had structure and suspense. It was all real life, but I felt like the way I told it was more important than the events themselves. I don't look back at the way I wrote then and cringe, which tells me at least I either didn't write too badly back then, or I've still got an unrealistic vision of my own skills. My friends and I knew almost every aspect of each other's lives, without ever picking up the phone. We knew their deepest thoughts and feelings and desires, but not necessarily how they were getting on at school, or what they'd had for dinner that day. There was a brief time, before the arrival of Facebook, where I had friends whose faces and full names I didn't know. They weren't any less my friends - I talked to them every day and I knew everything about them. It just so happened that we'd never met.

When I lost the will to write, I also lost the will to read what others were writing in their own journals. Weeks would go by without me checking Livejournal. Whenever I returned, I'd post false promises of coming back for good, of getting back into writing in it on a daily basis. Life became more about pictures and status updates and sharing general tidbits about your day, or your feelings, in 140 characters. When I found myself engaged in a topic on Twitter, I'd sometimes begin to write about it, but after a few paragraphs I'd look back at it, comparing it to the witty comments that had been retweeted into my timeline. I'd see others' recommended blog posts popping up before I'd ever really gotten a handle on the full events. I started to ask myself if there was any point in writing it if it wasn't really going to make a difference. Why would anyone read what I had to say, when there were so many other options?

I've never really had much of a belief in my own skill set. My ability at writing isn't the only thing I question. I've been playing music since I was seven and over the years I've been part of prize-winning choirs and orchestras; sang for the First Minister of Scotland; been paid professionally for playing clarinet; performed in theatre productions and played to hundreds, if not thousands, of people with my Scottish indiefolk band. I've contributed twice to a Scottish comic collective, written reviews for magazines and had articles published both on the internet and in student papers. I don't believe that any of this is down to skill. I think it's been mostly luck, timing and opportunity.

I hope that luck, timing and opportunity are still on board to help me, because I feel a little apprehensive even trying to write something I believe others will read. Perhaps, as I did when I was eleven, I'll steal the nonchalant air of some of my favourite writers. Maybe I could draw on my experience with Livejournal, where I wasn't necessarily writing for anyone other than myself. In any case, the only way to get past the hurdle of being a person who writes is to go forth and write. So here I am - writing - in a wide, open space. It may not be that I'll be consistently writing fiction, or matters of a personal nature to get my head around my thoughts and feelings, but there are certain things in this world that I care about that I have as much right as anyone else to record. Regardless of the reception of my writings, I'm going to try and live up to my potential. I hope my former English teacher is proud. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

"I was only joking!": Freedom of Speech and the Power of Rape Jokes

Chances are that you, like everyone, have certain things that you're touchy about. Each of us reacts in our own way and has a unique sense of humour. We all get offended, purposefully or not, by things people say at times. Censoring all speech that causes offence is practically impossible and it's not always fair to say that simply because something is offensive it is therefore harmful. Comedians often take dark subjects as their influence for creating jokes, and even some of the best-known comics are known to cross the line at times. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle regularly attracts criticism for doing so. In April 2011, Boyle was condemned for making a joke about glamour model Katie Price's disabled son, Harvey, that "appeared to 'target and mock the mental and physical disabilities' of the eight year old", and was censured, along with Channel 4, by regulator Ofcom. In its statement afterwards, Ofcom defended it as a one-off decision, stating, "To restrict humour only to material which does not cause offence would be an unnecessary restriction of freedom of expression." Many comedians will often push the boundaries of what is deemed socially acceptable in the hopes of making their audiences laugh.  As someone who was at the recording of that particular show and didn't find it funny then, nor when I later saw it on TV, I was surprised that Channel 4 had made the decision not to cut that particular joke. Whilst I don't find it particularly funny to make fun of children with special or additional needs, I'm sure I've probably giggled at plenty of other things that would have offended someone I know. As far as freedom of expression goes, UK citizens have a negative right to freedom of expression under common law, and in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (and in the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK). Obviously there are exceptions to this, including "any threatening, abusive or insulting speech, any behaviours that are likely to cause a breach of the peace, incitement to terrorism, defamation and corruption of public morals and outraging public decency." If you ask me, that's quite a broad range of exceptions – particularly that last one – and any could be easily moulded to fit your criteria. A lot of what is said 'freely' might be incredibly offensive, but not necessarily illegal and similarly, some of what should be treated as a joke, or innocent self-expression ends up condemned as harmful according to the exceptions.

Defining what we consider 'comedy' is impossible in terms of jokes; everyone has a different set of standards to how amused or offended they are by something. Almost every joke made is at the expense of offending somebody somewhere. Some jokes are just engrained in our culture to the point that many of us laugh without really examining what it is that makes the joke funny. Some feminist groups are often accused of over-reacting when it comes to jokes about rape or violence against women, but is this a form of 'free speech' which we should have more control over censoring? Women's rights activists in the UK accused Facebook of "promoting rape and 'rape culture'" after refusing to remove pages and groups that encouraged jokes about sexual assault. Following an online petition Facebook eventually made it possible to report groups to the site that made jokes about sexual violence.

Rape jokes are a touchy subject - to say the least - for a lot of people. Many argue that you can't pick and choose where to draw the lines and that anything is up for grabs when it comes to comedy. I consider myself firmly in the 'against' camp when it comes to jokes alluding to rape or sexual violence, not because I'm easily offended, and not because I've necessarily been affected first-hand by either, but because I genuinely don't see how such a topic can be funny. I can't see how normalising something like rape or having people laugh at the notion of sexual violence, can have a positive spin, never mind the consequences your laughter might have on the company you keep. For example, did it ever occur to you that if the statistics of those committing rape are so high, it's very likely someone in your circle of friends has or will commit such an act? The open letter 'To all the men who don't think rape jokes are a problem', on THIS blog, was a real eye-opener for me, because I'd never even considered it from that point of view. I'd like to think that none of my friends would ever do something like that, but reality is harsh. I'd also like it to be the case that none of my friends had been the victims of rape or sexual violence, but again, reality is harsh.

Comedian Sarah Silverman is arguably best known for her rape jokes. In a New York Times article proposing to be about the 'breaking of taboo', Jason Zinoman said "if you had to pinpoint one joke as a breakthrough for this new generation of female comedians, it might be this one: ‘I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.’ When I saw Sarah Silverman deliver that signature one-liner in a downtown theater almost a decade ago, the audience exploded with laughter followed by groans. Then came the anxious chuckles whose subtext seemed to be: I can’t believe I laughed at that joke.” Sure, joking about rape is an unfortunate norm of our society, a norm that perpetuates violence against women*. On a separate occasion, Silverman delivered a joke that directly drew attention to the fact that the majority of sexual assault victims never report it, "Who's going to complain about rape jokes? Rape victims? They barely even report rape." This particular joke deviated from the norm, steering away from jokes implying that rape is funny, or trivialising it, and instead made the audience uneasy. Fewer laughed, allegedly. Did they question the content? Okay, let's ask ourselves if there are any positives. It may well be the case that certain rape jokes can provoke people to become more conscious, more aware, perhaps even make it easier for victims to come forward and there's a chance it could even lead to better discussions on how society deals with sexual violence. It might even be possible that using humour in this way, by way of a rape joke, can be a useful way of getting that statistic through to people, as The Funny Feminist has considered, “That’s a rape joke I can get behind, because she’s not making fun of the victims, but in fact pointing out one of the most fucked-up things about our culture: that rape victims often don’t report rape.”

My main objection is that considering just how harmful and how triggering rape jokes can be is it worth the risk? In the UK, one in four women have experienced rape or attempted rape. Only 15% of sexual offences of persons aged 16 and over are reported and only 6% of those result in a conviction. The reported negative effects of rape jokes on victims of sexual assault may include the increasing likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder or the slow down or prevention of recovery. It might even discourage people from reporting the offence, knowing that it could be laughed off. Certainly, it could be argued that there is a difference between jokes that make fun of rape victims or the act of sexual assault and those that make fun of rapists, rape culture, or acknowledge the low percentage of rapes reported. Perhaps, considering just how harmful it can be and how widespread the effects of rape are, more could be done to censor speech that aims to normalise or trivialise sexual assault and rape. My only efforts to censor such things have been to point out that it does just that, whether it be to friends who have made a joke in the pub, the response of a friend of a friend on a Facebook status, or a celebrity on Twitter who should know better. While I sometimes lament the pouring of 'public outrage' on Twitter to so many news stories, I do believe it can occasionally get a point across strongly. Sometimes all it takes is one person to stand up and say 'Wait a minute, that's not okay' and you'll find you have hundreds, or even thousands, of people supporting you. There will, of course, no matter what the subject, be just as many showering you in vitriol. I've seen the subject of rape debated and argued in newspaper columns, and in the comments section of blog posts, only for everyone to be screaming at each other (or the text-based equivalent; typing in caps lock) and falling out. Like I said initially, joking about rape is a touchy subject. The problem is, for at least one in four women, it's more than just that; it's a constant reminder. It's a recurring insinuation that rape is something we laugh about, something that is no longer shocking.

Jokes always have the propensity to offend no matter what their content, but perhaps we should take a stronger line on what we consider unacceptable and what is really 'just joking'. As far as social media is concerned, we must consider at what point we consider something posted on Facebook or Twitter as being possibly harmful to victims. There are many other cases – racial hatred, homophobic content and threatening behaviours – that are not tolerated and, depending on just how 'important' you might be deemed, are punishable in different ways. Of course it's difficult to justify censoring anything, because by its very nature censorship is the removal of true freedom of expression. But if the sensibility and empathetic natures needed of society are somewhat lacking, how else can we challenge those that either seek to harm, or inadvertently do so? I'll keep standing up to people and keep saying it until I'm blue in the face. It's NOT OKAY.

*I'm not neglecting rape or sexual violence of men, just focusing on women in this context. 

All views are my own, unless otherwise stated, obviously.

Why do girls hate other girls?

 (or ‘How not to be hated on the Internet’)

Take note: girls are not in direct competition with each other. This is a myth propogated by women’s magazines in order to stir up rivalry. If you subscribe to the bullshit that Cosmopolitan (and the others) feed you, then you will end up believing that the only things that matter in life are how your body looks and how to sexually please a man. They tell you that you need the perfect body; that your body isn’t good enough no matter how slim, how toned, how cellulite-free, spot-free, blemish-free, scar-free, hair-free your body is. They encourage you to believe that it is your responsibility to fulfil a man sexually, and to somehow ‘trap’ a man into being with you, then ‘make’ him stay with you. They will tell you that what you do with your life is not enough and you should always want more, try harder and run yourself into the ground in the process. You too can have the man, the career and the family you’ve always wanted. If you subscribe to this bollocks then yes, you will find it hard to believe that other girls are not the enemy.

We do notice it. We do pick up on the snide asides, the catty comments aimed at other girls. If you’re the girl who says she doesn’t get along with girls, she’s a “lads' girl” - and not necessarily because you get on better as friends with males, but more because you hate other females, we notice that. If you’re the girl who gets jealous of others and instead of realising that it’s a natural feeling everyone gets at times, you decide to vent it in hurtful ways, we notice that. If you’re the girl who claims that other people’s comments hurt her, but when challenged, your response is essentially 'couldn’t give a fuck what you think', we notice that. The thing is, we don’t believe that you don’t care, because we’ve seen you go through this process with others. If you really wanted to push people away, you wouldn’t ask aloud ‘why do people hate me?’ and more to the point, if you really thought about it and were more aware of what you were doing, then you wouldn’t need to ask yourself.

Let me explain something, here. We don’t hate you. We probably barely know you. We don’t hate the person you are, because we’re sure that in person you’re lovely. When there’s that automatic this-is-real-life-not-the-internet filter on everything you say and do, when you stop yourself from saying that hurtful thing because you know your social etiquette, we might even like you. We simply hate the internet persona you have - that girl that only comes out when your fingers can fly across the keys and you don’t stop to think about what you’re ready to post in the public domain.

So, it could be down to jealousy. Jealousy is a powerful thing and it can make you act in shameful ways. Sometimes, after a period of jealousy, you’ll ask yourself why on earth you’d have acted in a certain way. It’s fair enough to be envious of the close relationship someone has with a person that you happen to like, but if you think that taking the piss out of that person in not-very-subtle comments is the right way to go about it, you’re completely wrong. Everyone is prone to jealousy, it’s a normal part of life. What isn’t okay is to let that jealousy drive you to make hurtful comments about others, or go on emphatic rants about the things you deem to be cool (and how they’re the complete opposite of the things someone else deems to be cool).

In essence, all I’m really saying is take a step back. Look at what you’re saying, and how you’re saying it, and how that might make others feel. If you’re trying to belittle others, stop. If you’re trying to take the piss, stop. You’re making everyone else feel uncomfortable. If you stop trying to one-up every other girl, or make other girls look bad, then they will not hate you, or your internet persona. Then you won’t be the person for whom, when someone brings up your name, we all make the face and go ‘UGGHHH I KNOW’.

The rule is simple. Don't be a dick.

(November 2011)

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

You're payin', I'm payin', we're playin'.

I have an idea. Why don't you do a support slot for a DF Concerts gig, say somewhere really classy like King Tut's, the o2 ABC or The Arches? You too can harass your friends into paying at least £8 to see you go on stage at 7.10pm in an almost-empty venue after a four minute soundcheck. Lucky you.

In all seriousness, I've been against Pay to Play gigs for years. I've agreed to play a few in recent times because however much you want to stand by your principles, band decisions are somewhat democratic. So when the majority of the rest of your band want to play a gig you can either do it, or quit, and the latter wasn't an option for me. Whilst I agree that it's nice to support bands that you wouldn't otherwise get the opportunity to, I just can't rationalise the need for each of the support bands to sell upwards of 30 tickets each. As a rule I will not charge those who buy tickets from me more than necessary. So, the face value of the tickets for our most recent gig was £12, but the first £8 goes elsewhere and we could have kept the £4 surplus and put it into our band fund - we have an EP to record at the end of next month and it isn't going to pay for itself - but none of us want to charge our friends excessive amounts to come and see us play. That, though, is the crux - how do you convince your family and friends to spend £8 coming to see you play when they could easily see you elsewhere for free, or for less than a fiver, usually on a fairly decent line-up in a venue that doesn't serve piss-water beer in plastic cups? Chances are few of them will be fans of the headlining band - though if they are, you're lucky, and you're helping them out by getting them cheaper tickets - and you'll have to strongarm them into showing up.

Now I've made my decision. I will oppose all suggestions to play support slots of this manner, because even though I get really excited about the headlining bands and the idea of playing in a cool venue, I can't deal with the stress, or the guilt, of trying to sell those tickets. It's just not worth it. If you're a decent band - which itself is mostly subjective - then you'll eventually get good support slots, or headline slots, without selling your soul, or begging your friends. If not, a 'helping hand' from the likes of DF concerts won't do much for you. Particularly if the sound ends up being so bad that even those who did come out to support you and paid their money, wonder if it was worth it. They probably won't bother next time.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

RIP The Free Hetherington, 1/2/11-31/8/11.

The door, finally closed.
The occupation of the Free Hetherington at Glasgow University ended on Wednesday 31st of August, after 7 full months. This makes it the longest student occupation in UK history.

After numerous meetings with Senior Management of the University, the occupation negotiated the following terms:
1. No more course cuts.
2. No more compulsory redundancies.
3. A new postgraduate club, to be opened in the next year.
4. No cuts for student services, a guarantee of transparency with the SRC.
5. A public meeting with the principal Anton Muscatelli, where students and staff may address their worries.
6. No repercussions from the University for staff or students involved in the occupation.
7. An assurance that no information will be volunteered to the police about people involved.
London, March 26th - courtesy of Daisy Duffy
London, March 26th 2011
I 'joined' the occupation back in February, about two or three weeks after it first began. I had stood in University Gardens on the day it first began, watching Liam talk through a megaphone, attempting to make students listen from the first floor balcony. I'd had a class to get to that day, and I had never really considered myself political, nor the sort of person who took direct action as a form of protest. There was a demo organised against the proposed cuts to departments, including my own department, and I'd seen posters around the campus in those first couple of weeks. I'd already decided I was going, but first I wanted to see what was happening in 13 University Gardens. Curiosity took me over the doorstep, but as soon as I walked in the door I was welcomed by someone on door duty, and shown through to the downstairs room by someone else. There were people sitting around, chatting, to my left, people studying to my right. Directly in front of me, someone was busy behind the bar and offered me a cup of tea. That day, I ended up doing the dishes. A few days later, I came back and learnt how to knit. Over the following weeks I attended workshops, offered my opinions in meetings, found my political voice and somehow, only a month later, found myself marching through the streets of London, protesting against the government's cuts to education and public services. I slept on the hard wooden floors of the Free Hetherington, when there weren't enough mats or mattresses and peeled vegetables in its kitchen. I made endless cups of tea for visitors and cleaned endless dirty dishes. I stayed up all night writing essays, fuelled by complimentary coffee, accompanied by numerous other students doing the same. I attended workshops where I learnt about the experiences of others and more about myself than I thought I would. I went to lectures and seminars on subjects I wouldn't have gotten even at the university. I met some of my heroes in terms of writers, film-makers and musicians. I laughed, I cried and I took part. It was a very small part. There were some wonderful, dedicated, lovely people at the Free Hetherington who did so much more and I am so grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to be involved. In comparison, I did very little. They were the ones who made sure there were always people around, that there were always activities planned and that people didn't forget why we were there in the first place. I felt proud to stand behind that banner, and prouder still to say that the Free Hetherington gave me a voice I didn't know I had. I won't forget that. Long live the Free Hetherington and my best to all its occupiers. I won't forget everything I've learned.

(If you'd like to read Liam and Alistair's article in Thursday's Guardian, it is here. The final word from the Free Hetherington blog is here.)