1. Tonight (February 22nd) is the 87th Academy Awards, or the Oscars. The sensible bets seem to be on Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor and Julianne Moore for Best Actress. Best Picture is a more difficult category to call, with Boyhood and Birdman both strong contenders. While it would be good to see a Brit walk away with the statuette for Best Actor (and I did think Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything was superb – you can read my review here), I’m more interested in how Hollywood treats its leading ladies. Many actresses have spoken out in recent years about the paucity of roles for ‘older women’: once you hit 40 (or probably even sooner than that), you’re past it. But that’s not the only problem women face. In addition to lack of roles for older women (and roles for younger women often being reduced to that of wife, girlfriend, lover or whore), nearly all films that are released are written, produced and directed by men. It’s no wonder that many women are turning to television, and not just for acting parts, but also for the opportunity to write and direct. Furthermore, when women are interviewed on the red carpet at film awards ceremonies, they’re always asked what they’re wearing, where their jewellery is from, who did their hair, how long it took them to get ready, and so on. Yes, a woman’s dress might be far more interesting than a man’s black tie, given the choice of colour, length, fit, style etc., but just because she (might) be wearing a dress, it doesn’t give journalists licence to treat a woman any differently, and to pose inane questions they would never dream of asking a man. At last, women are beginning to revolt against the posing of such ridiculous questions, and the actress and comedian Amy Poehler has started a campaign using the Twitter hashtag #AskHerMore in order to encourage journalists to think more about their interviews. Given the film industry’s pressure on women to always look young, thin and beautiful, it’s unlikely that such questions – and the disparity between how men and women are treated – will ever disappear, and I very much doubt that many of the interviewers on the red carpet in Hollywood tonight will have taken much notice of the recent outcry. However it is another step in the right direction that these stories are being reported.
2. This week, Stonewall announced that it will begin campaigning for trans equality. Founded in 1989, the organisation until now has only campaigned for the rights of those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and has often come under criticism for it. The current Chief Executive, Ruth Hunt, apologised for Stonewall’s past mistakes, and said that the charity will now make all its current work trans inclusive, as well as developing projects that are trans-specific. Stonewall’s move is a step in the right direction in recognising the rights and the needs of trans people, but other headlines and articles this week make clear that this is only the beginning of a very long road. Many people still debate the legitimacy of trans identities, rather than attempting to deal with the problems affecting the people behind the identity: trans people are more likely to suffer from depression and commit suicide; they are frequently the target of violent crime; they are more likely to live in poverty. As Owen Jones in the Guardian notes, there are so many trans causes to champion, and it’s taken far too long to get to this point. In America, at least one trans woman has been murdered every week this year, and this number only takes into account those deaths that have been reported. But there are signs that there, too, those speaking out for legislative reform and social change are making headway: last week it was reported that Laverne Cox has landed a role on a new CBS show, Doubt, which, if it is picked up after the pilot, would make Doubt the first prime-time series on CBS to feature a regular trans character played by a trans actor. This week, Democratic Congressman Mike Honda made headlines after he tweeted a picture of himself with his transgender granddaughter, saying he hopes she can feel safe at school without fear of being bullied.
3. I’ve been reading two very different memoirs this week. The first, Love, Nina, is the story of the few years the author, Nina Stibbe, spent living in a house in North London while she worked as a nanny in her early twenties. It happened that the house was that of Mary-Kay Wilmers, founder and editor of the London Review of Books, and her two sons Will and Sam (from her marriage to playwright Stephen Frears). Stibbe would write letters home to her sister in Leicestershire, detailing the events of Gloucester Crescent (which included regular visits from the playwright Alan Bennett, who lived opposite), and it is on these letters that the book is based. For anyone with even a passing interest in literature, this book is a gem – in addition to Bennet, other neighbours included Deborah Moggach, Michael Frayn and Clare Tomalin, who all make appearances – but it’s also incredibly witty and fun, and Stibbe an endearing and frustrating correspondent. She clearly has an ear for dialogue, writing down snatches of what passes for conversation in the Wilmers-Frears family, demonstrating how each family is odd, and yet also oddly normal, in its own way. Unsurprisingly, given that its based on letters written by a 20-year-old, Love, Nina has a refreshing sense of life and vigour about it, and is deliciously free of guile. Stibbe is keenly observant, frank and not afraid to be rude. I’m not surprised the BBC has just announced that it has commissioned a five-part adaptation of the book, which will be penned by Nick Hornby.
The second memoir I read this week was Maggie & Me, by journalist Damian Barr. Barr grew up in Motherwell, just outside Glasgow, in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers. To young Damian, who remembers watching the television footage of Thatcher emerging from the smoke of the Grand Hotel in Brighton after the 1984, she seemed indestructible. For a boy who came from a broken home, surrounded by violence and poverty, and was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, Thatcher was a woman to look up to, someone telling him he could make it, he could escape, even if everyone Barr knew swore at the television whenever she appeared. There are many bleak moments in Maggie & Me – no small amount of bullying, on account of Barr’s being tall, unathletic, clever and gay; the abuse Barr suffered at the hands of his stepfather; his mother’s inability to take care of him after suffering a brain haemorrhage and drinking too much – but Barr reports them in a matter-of-fact way, which makes them no less terrible and the book the stronger for it (it is no ‘misery memoir’). There are, of course, chinks of light in this childhood, particularly the close friendships Barr does form, and the way he manages to escape through books (it’s a not-so-silent outcry against the recent, and continued, spate of library closures), and laughs courtesy of childhood escapades and a rather foreboding grandmother in the form of ‘Granny Mac’. My only criticism would be the way Barr prefaces each chapter with a quote from Thatcher, and how it’s not completely clear throughout whether or not she is supposed to function as a sort of surrogate parent, but, as a memoir of a difficult childhood, particularly for anyone struggling with their sexuality, Maggie & Me is definitely a book that ought to be read.
4. This week I’ve been listening to various albums by Chromatics, particularly Kill For Love, released in 2012. It’s a 90-minute opus, experimental in ways which some might argue don’t always work, given that it includes various interludes and an instrumental finale that’s fourteen minutes long. But, if you like hazy, ephemeral synth-pop, then you might just find it as brilliant and beautiful as I have this week.
Categories: On My Mind . . .