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Having never been a huge fan of crime or murder-mystery series’ on TV, I’ve recently found myself addicted to a certain number of them, to the point where I’ve binge-watched them over a number of weeks, leaving my LoveFilm movies to one side as I complete each season. It started with Danish crime series The Bridge, and my girl-crush on lead character Saga Norén, then Sarah Lund in another Scandi-drama, The Killing, and now Carrie Mathison in Homeland. (I’m probably soon to start obsessing over Stella Gibson in The Fall or Gro Grønnegaard in The Legacy.)

I’ve always preferred human stories over complicated whodunnit plotlines so I’ve followed the stories of these women as they’ve led missions to solve crimes and track down villains, not really caring about the superficial plotline, but definitely caring about what happens to them and why they’re doing what they do.

A number of identifying characteristics binds them all and I’m finding it fascinating as to why this is a trend in crime dramas – the rise of the brilliant, yet unstable, often mentally challenged, highly independent professional woman who doesn’t give a toss about family or having children. To all intents and purposes, this is the new version of the maverick, swaggering, ‘fuck you’ trope of the ’70s and ’80s crime dramas, epitomised in male-led cop shows like Cracker or The Sweeney and parodied by Gene Hunt in Life on Mars.

These women walk into bars and pick up guys, they drink too much and they neglect their progeny. They’re brilliant at their jobs but they have trouble interacting socially and are prone to say what they think, even if it’s inappropriate. They’re sometimes highly autistic or bipolar, needing medication to manage their mental state, along with wine. They can’t be bothered wearing makeup or man-pleasing clothes – they simply get clean t-shirts out of their desks or pull on frumpy jumpers and badly fitting trouser suits instead. Who gives a f*ck about appearance when there’s a job to be done?!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this development, and wondering if it’s a bad thing that these brilliant women are being portrayed as child-resistant ‘unnaturals’. Are we meant to celebrate their inhabiting of the lone-wolf space, previously taken up by family-avoiding male detectives, or are we criticising their refuting of domestic bliss for the joy of job satisfaction? The trend has its roots in earlier cop dramas like Prime Suspect and Cagney and Lacey – Jane Tennison and Chris Cagney were allowed to exist outside the domestic space but it was one they at least tried to access. These new women are not even considering it – if anything, human relationships are secondary to their professional ones in a way that has stereotypically been associated with men for decades.

If we’re meant to be critical of these women, then I’m not feeling it. I’m watching these shows precisely because they outline the concept of female independence so clearly. The recent crop of them shows that there is a huge audience fascination with these ladies, and it can’t just be women watching them. I have to admit that my first thought on watching The Bridge was, “typical – to be a successful, non-familial woman in a male-dominated space on TV, you have to be somewhere high up on the autistic spectrum, and your lack of maternal instinct viewed as nothing short of freakish.” Then, as the number of these high-functioning women appearing on my TV screen grew, I started to think that this trend is nothing short of a revolution in female roles both on- and off-screen. Yes, the characters are flawed in ways that fascinate us, but we don’t judge them for non-conformity.

What’s most interesting is that when Skyler White first graced our screens in Breaking Bad, pregnant and desperately trying to hold together a picture of domestic bliss and familial normality, social media exploded in direct criticism of her actions, as though she was somehow spoiling her husband’s maverick crystal-meth-making fun. Even the actress that played her was vilified for the part she played in trying to keep her family together, trying to make her husband conform.

So bring on Stella and Gro because I can’t get enough of these indie women. The plotlines of these series are just a sideshow to the real story – women are dominating our screens in ways we’ve never seen before and I love it. This winter I’ll be swishing around in a military greatcoat (which I’ve had for years, actually) and DM boots, pretending I’m Saga, solving crimes in Denmark, eschewing makeup and letting my hair dry naturally as I stride into the office.

I might stop short of changing my t-shirt in the office in front of everyone, though.

I don’t think we’re ready for that just yet.

 

Anniversary

Today would’ve been my twelfth wedding anniversary – I got married in 2002 in a small Scottish castle hotel on a crisp, beautiful November day. There were kilts, a ceilidh, fireworks, friends and family. It still ranks as one of the best days of my life, even though the purpose of it has gone away. In many ways, it was a brilliant party that just happened to have a wedding attached to it – I thought so then, and even more so now.

I’ve often wondered why I felt such a strong urge to get married – I pride myself on not following the usual rules of behaviour –but there I was pursuing this goal because it was just ‘what you did’. All my friends had done it or were doing it, and I just had to tick that box. I decided that it had to happen before I was ‘too old’ to go down the aisle, and that thirty-five was my cut-off point. 2002 was my thirty-fifth year.

I knew it wasn’t quite right from the start and yet I pursued it relentlessly. I was the one who asked him to marry me, I was the one who made it all happen, even though he was extremely stressed with work in the year of our marriage and wanted to delay things. I just thought it was procrastination, but in retrospect, maybe he knew it wasn’t right either.

We did it anyway, and it was a huge and wonderful party for about seventy of our friends and family. Neither of us had big families, especially as my parents had died and he’d lost his dad, so there were ‘missing places’ at the wedding that we filled with friends and other loved ones. I made a speech (because of the missing persons), I took myself down the aisle, I arranged the whole thing. I even made myself stay on my own in the hotel the night before, not surrounded by friends and family, and actually a bit scared in the allegedly haunted room. This was all while he enjoyed his last night of freedom with his family and best man back in the village. What was I trying to prove? How alone I could be? I stayed awake pretty much all night.

I knew it was the wrong decision back then, I knew it was wrong on the honeymoon, and I knew for the next eight years. And yet I did it anyway. I know many people – men and women – who’ve admitted to me that they’ve done the same thing and are just going through with it, especially if they have children. It’s really scary, even considering leaving a marriage, and it took me time to gain the courage, and crucially the financial independence, to be able to do it.

When I finally did it, it was so sad. By doing what I’d done over the years, and his going along with it, we’d both lived inauthentic lives and it was time to face reality, in our forties. Essentially, we had been great friends who’d lived a great life, filled with adventure holidays, starter homes, dinner parties and burgeoning careers. There was much to be thankful for and the more distance I get on it all, the more I appreciate it for what it was, and him for what he added to my life. Thank you, if by chance you ever read this. (And by the way, I still can’t watch Out of Africa…)

What I’ve learned from it all is that your gut instinct is entirely correct, every time, in every circumstance. If your heart isn’t in something, your brain and gut know it and they tell you. You must listen to them, because they will steer you correctly through life. I’ve ignored mine in both professional and private life and it’s cost me. I suppose this mistake-making is all part of life experience and everyone does this. If only we’d listen to ourselves earlier in our lives and trust in what we hear. That so rarely happens.

I’ve applied the rule of Gut Instinct to quite a few things now – I only buy clothes if I absolutely LOVE them. Anything less, I know I’ll end up going off them and they’ll be given to charity. I only accept invitations to things I REALLY want to go to, rather than do things because I think I should, or because ‘everyone else’ is going. I only maintain friendships with people who truly add something good to my life and at the first sign of toxicity, back away fast, rather than labour away on something worthless.

The downside is that I often trust an initial feeling about something or someone and back away too quickly, making an ‘insta-decision’ that is so typically too-fast of me. I now catch myself doing it and make myself slow down to really look at the thing or the person, just to see if I’m missing something, if I’m being too hasty. This is the sort of thing I do when I visit new countries (see my Kaleidoscope Effect post) – I go there with all my preconceptions and first impressions and then wait for the reality to reveal itself.

It’s fun, waiting to be disproved about something, because you know, your gut instinct is usually telling you there’s something in there worth waiting for.

Over-baring

Since I’ve got back from the Middle East, I’ve been struggling a bit over what to say about the current slew of female celebrities getting their kit off, Because They Can, in various publications. I rather enjoyed being in a culture where both men and women cover up out of respect for each other, and started to think a lot about why we are so hellbent in the west on getting so much of our flesh out in public.

I’ve already said what I think about ‘The Fappening’, and 4Chan’s privacy violation against female celebrities, in my blog post In Support of J-Law. Everyone has the right to take nude pictures of themselves and a right to keep them private. But in the last fortnight, we’ve had two women (weirdly both of them with the initials KK), both at massively opposing ends of the bodily spectrum, determined to bare all in the name of womanhood and freedom of self-expression.

Why?

Firstly Keira Knightley appeared in Interview magazine, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, in a series of images in which her body remains unmanipulated by the media. No photoshop, no cleavage enhancement, just as she is. Then Kim Kardashian appeared in Paper magazine, in a series of oiled-up nekkid shots that were intended to ‘break the internet’. Which they almost did, especially with the ensuing parody versions.

I happen to think that both of these women are remarkably beautiful in remarkably opposing ways. I think it’s a shame that Kim has clearly decided to enhance her best-known feature with surgery, but as someone with a pair of womanly hips and a small waist, I feel like this is a world where I can finally get them out with pride. And then Keira – seemingly no work done there, but she is campaigning against the ‘digital surgery’ that often makes her more acceptably womanly on film posters or in fashion features. One woman is flaunting her curves in extreme public displays, the other campaigning against the faking of curves whenever she is put on public display.

Interesting, isn’t it?

It’s also made me think about Lena Dunham, and her ‘I’ve got my body out and I don’t care if you don’t approve of it’ scenes in the TV series Girls. Her physically and digitally unenhanced body, seen in a number of nude scenes in the show, has attracted a raft of criticism from men and women alike, but that’s her point. Why should she look like Kim or Keira when she is really Lena? And who is dictating these rules?

In many ways I applaud all of these women for putting it out there – Kim looks gloriously (and uncharacteristically) happy in her images; Keira is poutingly defiant, and Lena acts care-free and unconscious of society’s disapproving gaze. Well done, you, I think, but then wondering why the hell they had to go that far to make their points. I’ve often laughed with guy-friends about their tick-box lists of female celebrity tits and ass – how the urge to see every hot woman naked in order to ‘tick them off the list’ became a thing that they did, consciously or unconsciously. It’s the infantile thing that Seth Macfarlane’s ill-advised Oscars song, We Saw Your Boobs, seemed to sum up perfectly, to the horror of the women in the audience.

Did these women bare all just to finally get the guys, and the media, off their backs? Once they’ve bared everything, does it mean they’ll be hounded less by the 4chans of this world, who’ve already moved on to the next starlet? What is it about the forced uncovering of women that makes female celebrities decide to do it themselves, so that they can control the outcome? Is it empowering or is it the ultimate sacrificial gift to the media that is hounding them already?

I realise I’m asking lots of questions here and not really answering them. I do think that there is great power in remaining clothed, in holding something back from the world (but only when that holding back is unenforced). I’m clearly part of a zeitgeist for women who are ‘baring all’ in terms of their experience (including Lena Dunham) but is that really the best thing to do? I have already said that part of the reason I am putting it all out there is because no one will be able to use anything against me in the future. There are no secrets for them to pounce on. Isn’t that what Kim, Keira and Lena are doing? All of us are owning our bodies and our lives but in the process we are letting everyone else have a piece of them too. It appears to be the domain of the modern woman. I’m all for having a voice that is heard, but are we saying too much?

It’s interesting that in the same period as the double KK bare-all, Nick Jonas, the erstwhile virginal member of the pop group the Jonas Brothers, did a Wahlberg-alike photoshoot for Flaunt magazine in his pants. The story registered as a medium-sized blip on the radar of various gay and women’s interest websites, and yeah, I had a look. He’s hot. But he’s one guy in a sea of a bajillion women doing this sort of shoot every day, for lads’ mags, for Page 3, for the latest ‘it’ magazine that promises them not to enhance their boobs and make nudity ‘arty’. We’ve moved on from Jonas already. Who cares if a guy takes his top off?

For women, holding back and wearing more might be the ultimate empowering thing to do with just a glimpse of a bared shoulder or ankle, but would you do that if you knew that your private bare-all photos made for your partner were likely to be posted online the very next day, rendering your peekaboo clothed pictures ridiculous? If you knew that the latest celeb magazine was going to show a range of high-definition images of you in a bikini on your holiday on its front page, and a close-up of your face without makeup, would you grin and bear it or rush out a series of naked, no makeup shots taken by a top photographer for a cool magazine?

I think I’d want to own my own images if I knew that these were the rules of the game, so I can’t blame the two KKs for doing what they’re doing. Kim K knows that her greatest social currency is her body and she is setting the bar higher and higher for how much she’ll show us, and how far she’ll go to enhance it. Many will say that they’re not interested in her antics, but I bet they have a good look before dismissing them.

As I write this piece, Gemma Collins, ‘star’ of reality TV show The Only Way is Essex, leaves the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here jungle to a tidal wave of fat-shaming tweets. When the ‘bikini shower scene’ becomes a woman’s main social currency on TV, and she’s pitted against ex-model and lads’ mag favourite Melanie Sykes, I’d be out of there too.

 

The Kaleidoscope Effect

I knew I’d be writing a post about this topic at some point and I’ve been waiting quite some time to write it. I’ve just got back from a business-and-pleasure trip to the Middle East, and I knew I had preconceptions of what it might be like, and I knew they’d be challenged.

Over recent years, I have found that I have often carried a hotchpotch of preconceptions, misconceptions and travel-guide images of a place in my head when I go abroad. It takes days or even weeks for the reality to emerge and I call this the Kaleidoscope Effect. Like those childhood toys that contained tiny colourful beads, which you’d shake and see a clear pattern emerge through the eyepiece, I realise that my first impressions of a place are always way off and I have to shake them hard to discover what is really there.

I first noticed this effect when I went on a trip to Poland to visit a friend who was teaching English in Warsaw. I remember thinking, ‘bread queues and headscarves’ as I packed my bag, but how wrong I was. In the early 1990s the country was just emerging from its communist years and whilst the first thing I saw in the city was a load of soldiers parading around in the huge Soviet-style plaza, some of them with Lech Walesa moustaches, the thing that most struck me over the course of the trip was the youth, beauty and vitality of the place. Incredibly handsome, be-cheekboned university students were striding around everywhere in greatcoats, heading to cafes on the Nowi Świat (New World Street) to presumably talk about politics and philosophy (or is that another preconception?). I’d thought that Poland would be cold and uninviting, even in summer, so then spent a happy day sweltering in a chunky jumper at Chopin’s house in the countryside, listening to a world-renowned pianist being accompanied by a pondful of singing frogs.

Then came Kenya – possibly the biggest Kaleidoscope moment of all. I stayed in a coastal town near Mombasa called Watamu. Each day I went back and forth along the road between the house I was staying in and the bustling town. Sometimes I was driving, sometimes running. At first I saw poverty, dirt and latent danger in the shambas along the road. I’d run every day in the early hours up to a certain point and turn back. There’d be a gaggle of men on motorbikes under some trees, just staring at me. I had The Fear and could never get past them. That is, until, a Kenyan guy in the house explained that this was the local taxi rank. I felt ashamed that I had assumed they meant me harm.

One day, I ran past a shamba with a dog and it chased me. A woman, who was looking after her kids started laughing her head off at me, as I flailed around, the dog merely playing with me. Other villagers, and the taxi drivers, joined in and soon we were all laughing. How odd I must have looked among this nation of professional runners, white-skinned, red-haired and sweaty, not to mention wide-eyed from my encounter with the dog.

It wasn’t until a tourist remarked to me that he thought the level of poverty and lack of hygiene was so dreadful, and how awful it must be to live there, that I found myself violently disagreeing with him (inside my head). I had started to see smiling faces, happy babies, cleanly swept shambas, well-fed goats and laid-back taxi drivers. I’d said ‘jambo’ (hello) every morning to the group of tall Maasai living in a shamba outside the house – they were working as security guards at the local hotels and sending home money to their families in the Mara. I’d got to know the Kenyans in the house where I was staying, who had never been to Tsavo (the park nearest to them which cost too much for them to enter) and crowded round to see the pictures of animals on my camera, the youngest woman cuddling up to me, smiling.

And oh, that trip to Tsavo. We’d been warned of the Somali terrorist threat, which was very real, and were forced to drive there in a tourist convoy for safety. Before long the safari guys had left us behind but what remained were streams of kids going to school and adults going to work, smiling and shouting ‘jambo!’ as we passed. By the time we arrived at the gates of Tsavo my face was stuck in a smiling rictus and the effect of all that happiness stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It was better than the equatorial sunshine (which incidentally burnt me to a crisp when I was in the shade by the pool not wearing any sun factor).

And so to the United Arab Emirates. As a self-identified feminist I knew I was going to have some opinions about it. I already holiday in countries with Muslim populations – Egypt and Turkey are favourites – but in a sense, these tourist destinations don’t count because the locals are used to foreigners turning up and ignoring their cultural ‘rules’. But I enjoy respecting local culture so have already built up a bank of appropriate clothing and knowledge about what is considered respectful behaviour. I’d had encounters I didn’t enjoy (a man spiking my tea in a shop in Dahab, for instance, or seeing man in shorts and t-shirt walking next to his fully covered wife in the blazing Turkish heat) but have largely been left alone – Bodrum in Turkey is particularly liberal because it has a large gay population.

But I knew that in the UAE I was going to encounter a different level of all of this. Not a tourist destination, a dry state (and not just in a desert way), Sharjah operates under Sharia law with particular restrictions on clothing. This was going to be interesting. I decided to push any preconceptions aside and just experience it. What emerged in the Kaleidoscope was a hugely respectful scene. I already knew that Muslim communities are famed for their incredible hospitality and friendliness, so to experience that was less of a surprise. But watching men and women quietly make their way into the mosque near the hotel, under the hypnotic call of the Muezzin, made me realise that these are just people living their lives, respectful of each other and the code they choose to live by. The men here were mostly as covered up as the women (men cannot wear shorts), and the only surprise encounter I had was to see a Western couple in short shorts striding through the town. To me, they were the odd ones out and appeared so disrespectful – I started to wonder why we feel the need to disrobe so much in the west. My mother had always said that she’d covered up more in Kenya, to keep cool, and I could see the sense in the flowing white and black robes of the locals as they swished round the corniche. I had brought my long, cool, flowing clothing and was happy to wear it out and about. Why are we so hell bent on getting our bodies out? For me it makes no sense, as I don’t tan. I’m happy to preserve my skin in the sun and I always sit in the shade on holiday. With Factor 50 on.

I suppose it comes down to having a choice and being free. If you were forced to shroud yourself in fabric by law, then there would be cause for revolution, as we’ve seen in Iran with the emergence of the My Stealthy Freedom women, determined to let their hair flow free with no enforced hijab: https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom?fref=ts. I saw many variations of clothing for women in Sharjah, from skinny jeans and a shela (head wrap), to a full flowing chiffon abaya, just covering designer jeans and heels, and framing a beautifully made-up face. And some women just wore what they want, with as much skin as possible covered up. (This is a useful guide to appropriate clothing for visitors: http://www.grapeshisha.com/about-uae/uae-clothing.html).

Before we pronounce on anyone else’s culture or way of life, I think it’s useful to take a Kaleidoscope moment. Our preconceptions are built on years of false information mixed with truth and we don’t know what the reality is until we’ve witnessed it first-hand at close quarters and let it slowly reveal itself. There will still be things we don’t agree with or don’t sit well with us, but that view is often reciprocated by the people we’re judging. Before we pronounce on the policing of people’s clothing we should take a moment to consider how much our own clothing is policed by our own gender, by fashion, by our social groups. Same, same, but different, my friends.

When I exchanged a smile with a woman in a full black abaya in Dubai airport who was late for her flight, and she made the international sign for ‘phew!’ at the check-in desk, I just thought, ‘we’re just two women, flying somewhere, each with our own lives and wardrobes. And we still recognise a kindred spirit.’

Because we should.

 

 

 

Because I Can: the story so far

Having been the lucky recipient of a ‘Freshly Pressed’ feature with my post ‘Bare-Faced Cheek’, I thought I’d round up the top ten posts from my archive for all my new WordPress followers. So far, most of my viewers have been outside the blogosphere, coming to this site from Twitter or Facebook, but now I feel part of a community of bloggers with similar interests and views.

I started the blog because I found that I had quite a lot to say about my situation, leaving a marriage at the age of 43 and spending the last four years being constantly surprised by the twists and turns of life outside conventional coupledom. Some of them have made me laugh or whoop with joy, some have made me cry and floored me with unexpected cruelty.

Anyway – here are the posts that tell my story so far – I hope you enjoy them:

1. Where it all began:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/20/consciously-uncoupling/

2. On being childfree-by-choice:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/25/ping-pong/

3. On body image and the ridiculousness of dieting:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/24/epiphany/

4. On suicide:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/08/12/the-silence/

5. On not being a yummy mummy:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/08/17/the-one-where-im-absolutely-not-a-yummy-mummy/

6. On dating younger men:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/08/23/in-praise-of-younger-men/

7. On Toxic People:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/09/10/toxic-people/

8. On dating men my own age:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/09/19/sixth-date-syndrome/

9. On not being a Cool Girl:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/10/09/my-former-life-as-a-cool-girl/

10. On keeping my name:

https://becauseicanblog.com/2014/10/16/my-name-is/

Thank you for reading.

Lisa.