Feminism from further afield (3)

I’ll admit I scratched my head when I was wondering how to write about ‘feminism’ and its role in my life. Lani Parker asked me if I was a feminist in her podcast

Lani: We’ve talked about intersectionality a bit and identity politics, and moving towards the movement stuff. I was wondering, and we talked about bringing in women’s issues and race issues. I was wondering, what does feminism mean to you? Because you’re a very strong feminist.

Eleanor: Thank you. I’m not sure I’m a strong anything. I’ve not really studied feminism as a theory or gone to any feminism classes or courses, or anything like that really. I think for me, feminism is being able to do what you want to do when. Your gender shouldn’t limit your opportunities. Having said that, I realise that it’s not, even if you think you’re a feminist, there are a lot of things in this world that put a stop to your choice, because it’s just easier to conform. I know I got married quite young, and if I was a feminist, if I wasn’t a disabled person, I think, thinking back, I might not have got married at that age. And I think I got married then because I had this internalised idea of myself as not being worthy. And I think that if I didn’t marry the first person who asked me, I might never get another chance. Whereas I don’t think that I would think that if I was a non-disabled woman? So that’s why I’m saying that your choices are compromised, and that’s the intersections they’re kind of in.

I think back of the influences from my own background. My mother is a strong woman, she travelled on her own and escaped from the countryside to go to the city to study during the Communist takeover in Quangzhou. She supported my father in his business and was a businesswoman in her own right. But she stayed well in the family.

My first understanding of the misogyny and patriachal society is from church. One of my mentors, Mrs M committed suicide because of domestic violence and her deep unhappiness also from the fact that her Indian community gave her no support. Of course I have imbibed enough Chinese and Indian films to know how chances are stacked against women. Although I have to add that that Chinese kungfu movies (of which I am a huge fan) have always had strong women warriors and fighters.

Its nothing like the experience of despair and inexplicable resignation of a community when it unfolded in front of me as in the death of a respected member of the community. Everybody seemed to be resigned to it – nobody could/would help her. I raged – I did not understand why she didn’t have choices. I did not understand the patriarchal rules they adhered to. Nobody was denying he abused her. Even sadder was that her sister was given in marriage to help raise the four children she left behind.

I think it was that and another near suicide of another close Indian friend – also through domestic violence that I stopped believing in romance. It simply did not exist in my community. Women got married. They had children. Some men (friend’s fathers) had more than one wife. Even the school secretary but they are not mistresses, they are concubines, unless they are Muslims, then they are wives. We did not question it, it was part of life as we knew it. There was no judgemental bullying of the offspring of such alliances either.

But I got married at a young age myself. I think whatever I felt, I wanted to belong to the idea of the ‘feminine mystique’ . It is still a patriarchal society and as a disabled woman, I longed to belong as with a ‘normal’ ‘rites of passage’ as a woman. And I became a wife and a mother without ever questioning myself.

It was only after the birth of my second child, I decided I should also think of having jobs but soon we moved to Strasbourg (the opportunities for partner and children came before considerations for my own career.) I should say I was enjoying joining other women’s groups and disabled people groups in London at the time, so it was not an easy choice personally.

The logistics of making a new home, grappling with children’s routines, getting to grips with a different culture and language took all my energy and space at the time. I enjoyed expatriate life, made new friends and a new semi diplomatic status. But it had its own toll on me. I felt isolated and without access to my own circle of friends (since I didn’t work) and intellectual stimulation.

I started on a Masters in English Literature with the OU. This where I started researching and thinking about feminism looking at women revolutionaries in the 1790’s, such as Eleanor Ty’s Unsex’d Revolutionaries: Five women Novelists in the 1790’s

So my journey to feminism is not through the suffragettes or learning about them. It was from the voices of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. I started noticing the absence of women’s work. I had collaborated and presented papers in Museum conferences about gender issues.

 

At the V&A: Identity, and using the right language

crowd of people sitting on the floor, some cross legged, mostly young people.
the audience

The week before last, I recieved an e-mail

I am contacting you on behalf of gal-dem (http://www.gal-dem.com/ )  and the V&A Museum, as we hoped you would be interested in taking part in our upcoming event.
Hosted on the 28th October, gal-dem are taking over the Museum to curate a night of talks, workshops and films which celebrate women of colour.
During the course of the evening we will be hosting three panels discussions exploring what it means to be a woman of colour in various spaces. The first will be on creative women, the second on music and the third on politics. Each talk will be aprox 30-40 minutes long and include 4 women on each panel. We would love you to speak on the panel for politics. Is this something that you would be interested in?

I was pleased to be asked and agreed even if it was scheduled at the late hour of 9pm. The V&A requires a fair bit of travelling to get to and back from where I am.

Upon discussion about the panel discussion itself, one mentioned surprisingly that for her, ‘people of colour’ referred to Black people, those of Afro-Carribean heritage and with someone else who is herself of that background, said she did not like the term. I asked this of a Black British person I respected and she told me that it’s used mostly in the USA, with its origins there, but not a prefered term here in the UK – similar to the usage of ‘people with disabilities’ (mostly used in the USA ) and ‘disabled people’ (here in the UK).

I started questioning on how I would identify myself then as an East Asian or South East Asian/ Malaysian Chinese/British Chinese. But I do not really want to box myself. I had written briefly on that discussion of terminology for Media Diversified.

Of course I question myself on identity politics – should identity be framed as only a political issue? No is the brief answer. Its also very much a cultural issue. I was brought up in a very multi cultural, multi faith environment where we had to learn more than one language but my parents only spoke to us in Cantonese and I grew up listening to Cantonese opera but watching Bollywood as well as Hollywood movies. I did South East Asian history and English Literature learning about daffodils but knowing nothing about the local fauna and flora. I’ve moved so much in my life and gained nourishment from each of the places I have called home, Kent, Yorkshire, Strasbourg, Austin, Massachusetts, Coventry and London…

I am very grateful to friends, both American and British, hearing my doubts voiced – took the trouble to tell me about the origins of the term ‘women of colour’ from Loretta Ross:

“….didn’t see it as a biological designation—you’re born Asian, you’re born Black, you’re born African American, whatever—but it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been “minoritized.”

This is exactly how I would want to add myself there, as a gesture of solidarity so that I do not have nail my nationality, birthplace, ethnicity (colours) to the mast. In a way it is like the social model of disability, I do not have to state my impairments – by saying I am disabled, I am joining a community which had been discriminated against.

It was a great evening, I ate with friends there even if we did not make it to the Soul Food Kitchen, I was dazzled by the diversity of the Gal-Dem ensemble, it was so so busy…I’m sorry to have missed the ‘twerking’ session

tables set up for dining with people, lovely room with tinted glass pictures
Soul food kitchen where carribean cooking was demonstrated

great contemporary portraits

2 portraits of a black woman topless, shes holding big feathers, the other of her with her back
in the gallery

but I could not see the poets performing their poems 🙁 a shame…

road of people with their backs to the camera
the backs…

#MebeforeYou to #LiveBoldly

 

crowd of people on both sides where a big banner was displayed
The protest started – photo provided by Donnacha Delong

Last Wednesday, I was with a group of protestors at the ‘Me Before You’ premiere to show our anger about the film with its dangerous message : that death is preferable and more heroic/ romantic than life with a severe impairment. Many other reviews such as the one from the New York Times and from the Guardian– and other disabled folks have written/blogged/filmed /videod their disapproval so I won’t repeat them here. But here is one good critique of the film and other films that show that the disparity of what is deemed tragic (in suicide) for non disabled is brave, right and understandable for disabled people.

At the protest, I caught that exchange between Liz Carr and Jo Jo Moyes on my smartphone, the sound here is not very good but Channel 4 used it and added subtitles and footage from elsewhere.

Jo Jo Moyes asked Liz if she had read the book or seen the movie. (Liz replied that she had.) Now I did get a copy distributed while I was in the ‘crip pen’ (an area cordoned off just for wheelchair users) so I thought I would read the book before airing my views. I refuse to have to pay to see the film though.

It is a British romance via Hollywood. It has tinges of The Diary of Bridget Jones – the feckless, impoverished woman with the rich, powerful, rude and surly male lead. Except in this case Emilia Clarke plays  Louisa Clark who lives in a rural area whose main skills seem to be making tea and toasting teacakes and he is Will Traynor who is a quadriplegic. She is vehement that she cannot clean ‘wipe bottoms’ and any of the mucky jobs, she’s had an idea from the care her grandfather needs but she want the money so she has no choice. Here is my first objection – the underlying idea of the ‘messiness of care’ and before she falls in love with Will Traynor, she calls it the worst job in the world. From what I can see, she had an easy job, she could have spend the time reading or watching television or doing Facebook. Nope, she irritates Will. She makes a terrible personal assistant /caretaker. She does not know her rights as a worker – how many hours does she work? She can drive but she doesn’t have a car, she uses buses. She has no aspirations, she answers ‘I don’t know. I have never thought about it.’ when he asks her what she wants from her life. So shes like an empty page for him to fill, to teach, so he does – gets her to watch a foreign film with subtitles and takes her to a concert, to a posh wedding and pays for their holiday. Mills and Boons stuff. (Am I allowed to question how she is able to research for holidays on the world wide web but she can’t do other things useful online?)

So he’s the macho man before his accident – he says

‘I loved my job, my travels, the things I was. I loved being a physical person. I liked riding on my motorbike, hurling myself off buildings. I like crushing people in business deals. I liked having sex. Lots of sex. I led a big life.(p.426).

if he was such a successful man – how come he is still living with his parents? Why isn’t he in London where there is much more happening? Doesn’t he have money to buy/ adapt any accommodation? Why is he allowing his mother to hire staff for him? ( I can see that they might be breaking labour law by not giving Lou more breaks) So he was a banker – one of those who screwed up our economy and he would have had no qualms at voting to cut benefits. His accident happened 2 years ago, he had so much time to brood why hasn’t he been on the internet to see the possibilities? if he knows about Dignitas. Why is he such a failure – of course he is in mental distress and mourning for his past wasteful and harmful self but surely he would have seen that there are opportunities, he can still be a banker and screw people. Surely he has his own income with the insurance money and does not have to rely on anybody. And oh yes, no sex? Okay I can understand that maybe he can’t have penetrative sex but he has a playmate and sex does not have to be penetrative. And how come he calls her Clark and not Lou? is this a public school thing? Remember he likes ‘crushing people in business deals’? Disability has not made him any more sympathetic to weakness or vulnerability.

For romance, I think there is so much more in Jane Eyre – similar theme, in the end Jane takes care of Rochester and it was on her terms. For all his faults, he didn’t go into a deep decline and suicide. But they are poles apart.

My criticism is that Jo Jo Moyes did not really craft her story – there are so many holes in the story. I don’t understand why people were going on about tissues needed. My inclination is to conclude that he killed himself because he had so much disablism inbred in him (his mother does not seem to be particularly warm maternal type) that he could never live with disability – he hates us. He will not settle for Lou because he cannot allow himself – I think he doesn’t see her as his equal.

And it is romantic for some women to dream that a man will take them out of the drudgery of poverty and the chocolatey coating of love without responsibility. He sails into the sunset with Dignitas and she gets the horizon of possibility with the legacy.

What does the reader/cinema goer take away? Girls, find yourself a rich disabled man who is suicidal and you might end up with a jackpot – you won’t even need to fuck him. Disabled people – get this ‘ its a far far better thing to do’ …than to stick around, your life is over, give the ones you love a chance to have the type of life you can never have. And this is for the Western audience, your life is not worth living

Steven Spohn is right when he wrote:

So, if the movie isn’t about them getting it on or Will’s triumph over adversity, what is the point of the movie?

Will is a plot device.

The book was never about Will. The story is about Lou and how Will’s influence changes her life. Lou fails to show Will the joy that can still be had in the world, even if you find love, because you are dealing with some sort of disability.

If I am cynical, that’s the target audience, women who still dreams of being rescued by knights on white horses, Cindrella type of fairy tales. That’s who Jo Jo Moyes expects to buy her book, and judging from the fact it is a best seller, she’s right. And this is why she took all the ‘messy’ parts off and Lou does not have to deal with those. Or that there is a question of a employment relationship here? Its a romance on the Mills and Boons formula. Forget feminism. It wouldn’t work if Will is a disabled woman! I am all for escapism but this is sloppy writing.

I saw the Thai advert for for this film, so there in South East Asia, without the filter of disability rights, the communities there will conclude that disabled lives are burdensome and look at the romance – forget romance, you should top yourself. That is a sobering thought.

 

On the EVA London Conference committee

computer laptop with room and two men in background
EVA London Conference committee meeting at BCS with skype attendees

Every summer in July, the EVA London conference is held at the BCS in Covent Garden. It is an interesting international conference which is not too busy and you really get to meet and network with academics, practitioners and museum professionals.

I help with the PR and publicity side and it helps my academic identity as a phd student and opens a world that I might not otherwise have known! Here is where I had a presentation /exhibiition myself last year.

long photo of people in exhibition
At EVA exhibition 2015 photo by Graham Diprose

Twitter: @EVAlondonConf
Hashtag: #EVAlondonconf
Facebook: EVA London
LinkedIn: EVA London

Disability culture: A conference, a protest and a ramble

presentation at EVA
photo with thanks to Graham Diprose

To say last week was hectic is an understatement.

it started with presenting my exhibition of Images of protest in social media for the virtual community

 

for the EVA London Conference preconference which is organized by EVA and V&A Digital Futures. It was good to see Wasi Daniju and Rikki Indymedia who contributed to my work. Many thanks to them! Here is the paper from the conference proceedings.

The next day we went full into the first day of the conference with Dan Crow as keynote speaker on How Songkick is using Technology to Change Live Music.

Wednesday became even more exciting when I scooted to Whitehall to join the other anti austerity campaigners for a protest against budget cuts Balls to the Budget and then scuttled back to Covent Garden in time for lunch and to chair a session at the conference. Some friends were arrested. The two parts of my world seem very distant but yet within 10 minutes walk from each other. But my exhibition was on protests in austerity! not so remote after all.

Balls to the Budget placard
Balls to the Budget placard

I so wanted to stay for the Art that Makes itself book launch by Paul and Daniel Brown – Brown & Son because I saw the recording of the talk they gave by Watermans – A symposium supported by the Computer Arts Society addressing topics relating to generative art and its collective histories. Here is a very interesting interview too. But I had a union meeting to get to.

Saturday had a different tempo when I joined Petra Kuppers for a meander jointly lead by the wonderful Stephanie Heit (from the US), in the company of Anna Hickey-Moody , her brother visiting from Australia, Andy, and fellow Scrabble player, Antje Lindenmeyer, lecturer from Warwick University!

Saturday July 11th, 2-5 South Bank River Meander, starting at Adopting Britain exhibit, ending at Tate Modern.

Walk along the river with us, and let’s find our hollows, halls, and underpasses. With optional refreshments at Gabriel’s Wharf or the British Film Institute (whatever your flavors of escape). We met at 2 in the Adopting Britain exhibit, Spirit Level at Royal Festival Hall, about immigration and the UK

so here we are at the start at the South Bank where we introduced ourselves and think about drifting and be conscious of the water and think … I think the week has drained me of the ability to think…I wanted to drink and have an ice cream…

image

and here we are finishing at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern

at the Turbine Hall
at the Turbine Hall

The day was not finished – it ended splendidly with Zara’s lovely 30th birthday party and I got home after midnight, feeling definitely old and yet a little like Cindrella wondering ‘when was the last tube home on the Jubilee line?’!