Monday, 22 October 2012

Liberal Arts (2012)

I'm tired, so very tired, and I'm only just starting my third week back at university. I hope things will calm down a bit soon. When I'm not eating, breathing and sleeping French and German (I'm speaking quite literally here - one of the international students I mentor, who's Austrian, very kindly made me some vegan Apfelbeignets. And I've dreamt in French a couple of times lately), I'm trying to keep up with extracurriculars, and also make some time for myself, of course.

So what better way to take my mind of all this than going to see a film that's all about university?

So far, so Juno
Liberal Arts is the second film by Josh Radnor, aka Ted off How I Met Your Mother. It's about Jesse, a 30-something New York professor who returns to his old college town in Ohio, he meets Zibby, a student there played by Lykke Li's long-lost twin, Elizabeth Olsen, and... well, you can probably guess at least some of the rest of the storyline.

But I think what stopped this film from basically being Garden State is that it was actually quite intelligent, and addressed some issues that I've been pondering in my life lately. For example, there's a bit where Zibby is reading a Twilight-style book, and Jesse aggressively demands to know why she reads that kind of thing when she's educated and intelligent. She can't explain it... she just likes it. In fact, she gets aggressive about it (and rightly so): 'You think it's cool to hate things, and it's not - it's boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don't'.
It becomes a bone of contention between the two of them, until in the end he actually finds something it's good for. I feel this is a position I have been in a few times in my life, but most often in the context of music - someone might consider me to have "good" taste, but then I reveal that I like some pop star whom they have never even listened to but criticise anyway, and I have to try and justify myself in a similar way to the one shown in the film. It's tiresome. Being clever and enjoying something frivolous are never mutually exclusive: this is something that I have only begun to accept in myself quite recently and I feel a lot better about myself for it.

Another part that resonated with me - and I'll try to make this spoiler-free - was Zibby's realisation that she wanted to feel grown-up, but was trying to fast-forward it. This is exactly how I felt in my first year of university, and it is a valuable lesson I have learnt. Of course, my life has changed a lot since that year, and I do indeed have so many responsibilities to take care of nowadays, and I am only really just starting to feel like a grown-up now that the beginning of my future is on the horizon. But I think that it is something useful to keep in mind for anyone who is about to enter university. You don't have to be perfect, because by the time you graduate, you'll realise how far you've come.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

No, thank you.

This has had a few days to simmer now:

There was, understandably, some uproar straightaway that Caitlin Moran was basking in her white privilege and, well, 'literally' not giving a shit about it - an uproar that is still going on.

I'm not really here to talk about Lena Dunham's show Girls, or the alleged lack of diversity in the show itself - there wouldn't be much for me to say, as I have never seen it, and I don't wish to pass judgement on it before having done so. I want to talk about why this has been bothering me so much.

I should start by saying I thought last year's How To Be A Woman was a pretty terrible book. I picked it up thinking the title was tongue-in-cheek (i.e. there's actually no singular set way to be a woman, doesn't it suck that society imposes these narrow and damaging standards on us?). Since it was marketed as an accessible, humorous introduction to feminism, and I was interested in finally getting a UK perspective, I was excited about reading it. Instead, my most frequent thought whilst reading was 'did she even have an editor?'. It looked like it had been written when she was drunk and keyboard-happy.

The first red flag was when she asked the reader to stick their hands in their pants - and if they found a vagina, they were a woman. From here, I could tell it was not going to be a very inclusive kind of book, but I carried on anyway. The other thing I can immediately remember rubbing me the wrong way was her loud insistence that being a sex worker (unless you were a burlesque dancer, therefore an artist!) inherently meant you were a pawn of the patriarchy and a disgrace to women everywhere.

In a nutshell, the brand of feminism Moran advocates is basic, regressive, self-absorbed, and dangerous. In fact, the only reason I can think of why people seemed to like the book so much is because it was presented in a vaguely entertaining way, and that she prides herself on being so outspoken.

So I wasn't really surprised when all this happened. Whether you agree with the accusations being thrown at her and Lena Dunham or not, surely we can settle on the fact that the way she handled being told something she didn't like was completely unacceptable.
For a long time now, anyone who has challenged Moran on Twitter gets blocked, and that's the end of it. This is the behaviour of a surly teenager, not a 37-year-old high-profile journalist. She did not need to reply to that question in such a dismissive, impudent manner. If she was uncomfortable about answering it, she could have easily ignored it.  She shows no sign of remorse, which I doubt will ever happen when she has people tweeting her not to listen to the haters. I must have missed the memo that people who tell you that you messed up are haters.
No doubt that if, for whatever reason, Moran had tweeted a male writer of a TV show asking after the lack of female representation, and he replied saying that he didn't give a shit about it, that would have suddenly been the worst thing in the world. How is it possible not to see the connection between shutting out someone because of their gender and shutting them out because of their race?

Reni Eddo-Lodge says in this article, 'Until feminism is for everyone, it will work for no-one'. I find this to be completely accurate. Moran seems to be all for feminism... as long as it's exclusive to white, heterosexual, middle-class women! But she seems to know little about how flawed the movement actually is, how it still needs to be sorted out. It's why so many women are reluctant to assume the feminist label. This is not a truth that can be avoided for much longer.

If you are seeking an introduction to feminism, one that's slim and easy to read but leaves no stone unturned, Feminism Is For Everybody by bell hooks comes very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Let's just see what happens when the summer ends

Back at university. Lectures don't start until next week, but there's plenty of reading to keep me occupied between rediscovering my bearings and trying to get a social life going. It is so, so odd to be back after a year in a place I considered familiar, yet so much has changed there. And so much has changed about me during my year on the continent. I'm revisiting this city with fresh eyes.

I am living in student halls again, which is also weird, but not entirely objectionable. I don't have to worry about things like paying for electricity bills, or not using the heating even on freezing nights in order to save money (although, that takes care of itself here - it's blazing 24/7, and I can't even turn it down. What a waste of energy). Also, I get to meet a whole new bunch of people, the prospect of which is no longer quite as terrifying to me as it would have been a year ago. I'm living in a lovely converted Edwardian house, and sharing a kitchen with six others. I'm in a tiny attic room; teenage aspiration, consider yourself fulfilled. Back in the day, it would have been the servants' quarters. Still, it's considerably bigger than my room at home, and I've made it cosy enough.

Summer is well and truly over. It's getting dark at 6pm. I can no longer really get away with not wearing a cardigan when I go outside. It's autumn now, and these moments are precious. Personally, autumn is my favourite season. It's the perfect balance between summer and winter. You can dig out your knitted clothes, but still enjoy shading your eyes from the sun with your hand (until mid-October, perhaps). The colours outside are still vivid enough to put a spring in your step.

As I've already mentioned, although wonderful at times, for me, this summer wasn't exactly the face of productivity. That's why I've been particularly looking forward to this autumn. I think I associate it with going back to school, a fresh feeling, a determination that the previous year's problems and challenges are behind me. New ones undoubtedly await, but the positive feeling is fleeting, so it's nice to appreciate it. So, it's pleasant weather combined with having some sort of purpose. Any sort of stress is negated by the prospect of the opportunities and experiences that lie ahead.

My nicest (recent) autumn memory is when I moved into my house at the beginning of my second year of university. I mean, it was a proper house, not just student accommodation It was a beautiful, awesome house, too, complete with an authentic fireplace in my room and a basement decked out in Halloween decorations by the previous tenants. And I was living there with some of my best uni friends. That year was certainly not without its problems, but it's a time I look back on with great fondness nowadays. I wish I could bottle the feeling. Luckily, I can do the next best thing, which is listen to autumny music.

At that particular time, I was thrashing The New Pornographers' Twin Cinema, the song 'Use It' in particular. Even the colours of the album art - green and orange - are somewhat autumnal. And this is just such a quality band, one that I have really come to love.

What makes them even better is that pretty much all the members are prolific outside the group. For one, there's Neko Case, all-round badass (check her Twitter). My favourite record of hers, that I've heard, is this:

Yo La Tengo also bridge the gap between summer and autumn well - I find they work best either on summer nights or autumn days. Their back catalogue is huge, and I've only ever listened to three of their albums, I think. Even if you are not going to listen to every single thing they've put out, they're still a pretty essential band.

And then, there's a whole evocative genre. 90s emo, or revival of 90s emo. What is it about this kind of music that makes it so well-suited to autumn? I think it's the fact that the evenings still have a little bit of light left in them, and so you can just about make more of the day, and hold onto what's left of summer (assuming you had some good times) with the knowledge it will fade soon. This is perfect for nocturnal, introverted young people, perhaps dealing with unrequited or impossible love - that is, most of the emo demographic.

That summer of 2010 was when I got into Cap'n Jazz. As autumn followed, so did a whole influx of bands that I couldn't believe I'd gone without during my teenage years - unsurprisingly, ones that sprang from the ashes of Cap'n Jazz, like The Promise Ring, American Football, and so on. These are not my go-to bands when I am really feeling fed up with life, because on occasion I feel they are bit too "whiney white/straight/middle-class guy". They pretty much only ever sing about girls, or places and times they miss. For instance, if I'm pissed off because I've been contemplating the terrible way women are still often portrayed in the media, and that this is probably how the man who groped me on the bus earlier justifies his actions, I am likely to listen to some kick-ass (female) babes who I feel understand me, y'know? It might be why I love the band Rainer Maria so much - in an unexpected twist for this genre, the main vocalist is a woman, so I automatically feel like I can relate. I suppose it's that I don't have to reverse the "roles" of the people inhabiting the lyrics, and in this sense listening to them is a bit easier - half the work is done already. It's not something I really even consciously think about.

Jessica Hopper wrote an essay about it, called 'Emo: Where The Girls Aren't'. Even though I don't agree with everything she says in the essay, it's very much worth taking some time to read if you're wondering what I'm talking about. Long story short, it's one of the reasons I get so excited when I discover predominantly female emo bands, rare as hen's teeth as they are (the now-defunct Rainer Maria, headed by Caithlin de Marrais, being my favourite).

My other criticism, though not of the bands themselves, is that in a scene where the name Kinsella is treated as a hallmark of quality, I sometimes feel like there are far too many copycat bands; too many to work at to really love. You have to be discerning. Just because something is considered to be 90s emo (revival), it doesn't magically mean it's good. I find a lot of these bands unlistenable, actually. But it makes it a lot more rewarding when I do find something that moves me.

Despite being probably the quietest take on emo around, I'd like to recommend an album to anyone who hasn't listened to it. It's the self-titled from Owen (the pseudonym of Mike Kinsella). The sound is soft, but it cuts right to my core. Take an evening to lay down in bed with minimal lighting, put on your headphones and just listen. It's just beautiful, and it will be the best acoustic music you listen to, if only just because it forces you to confront your insecurities. And of course, I urge you to check out his other albums - his discography is unusually consistent.

And with that, I just might head to bed now and fall asleep to this album. I have a busy day ahead of me when I wake up.