Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Cupcake Conspiracy

Photograph: Guardian

I’m struggling to understand what the cupcake revolution is all about. Seemingly overnight women downed tools, shut their Outlook accounts and started opening ‘boutique’ cake shops across the country. When earlier this year Marks and Spencer got in on the game I knew this was more than a subversive confection movement, it was a full blown craze. What was once the humble cake of choice for kids, the kind of bakery that came straight out of a box topped off with Dennis the Menace transfers has been transformed from nursery food into the birth of sophisticated patisseries. But why, I ask would a fully grown woman actively infantilise herself by eating a teeny tiny cake? Indeed, what sane adult would want to be seen dead eating anything in miniature? We all know how naff mini burgers, hotdogs, fish and chips, and beef wellingtons are so minuscule cakes should be no different.
But the ten years since The Beauty Myth when Naomi Wolf lambasted the cosmetics and diet industries for shaming over-indulgent womenfolk across the land into starving themselves, has seemingly spawned the hybrid treat – the have your cupcake and eat it cake helpfully consumed in one mournful mouthful. And that’s the problem with cupcakes they are thoroughly unsatisfying. From their momentary sugar high to the inevitable diabetic come down – they inspire madness and melancholy in equal measure.

So ladies take heed, for is it any wonder as Paris burned and its inhabitants starved on the streets, Marie-Antoinette could only manage the limp ‘Let them eat cake’ before she opened another box of Krispy Kremes?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A Storm in a Mooncup

Its official, menstruation is cool. No more shamefully stuffing your tampons up your shirt sleeve as you slope off to the bogs. No more embarrassed cheeks aflush as you hand over cash for fanny pads, as if they were counterfeit goods purchased on the black market. Girls rejoice for the monthly bleed is not only natural, it’s sexy. No really, a few weeks ago The Guardian ran a spate of splinter life and style articles celebrating all things menarche. From the delightful period lipstick, to the life-changing effects of the Mooncup, women all over the west are ripping off their clothes and howling at the moon. And if you are in doubt over the validity of this statement just check out Shakira’s latest video for ‘She Wolf’ – a wonderful example of not so much PMT as pre-menstrual sexual tension.

In the video Shakira is lured by the glow of the full moon into her closet, adorned not by Jimmy Choos and not so much a secret passageway to Narnia, but rather the entrance to a cavernous and glittering womb. Cue costume change and we find Shakira writhing around in a cage in a barely there nude jump suit. Come on don’t tell me you haven’t been tempted to put on a flesh coloured leotard mid flow. ‘She Wolf’ is as shamelessly sexually provocative as a music video comes, but coupled with the bizarre concept of ‘Lycanthropy’ (behaviour governed by the movement of the moon) and its thoroughly pleasant 70’s disco synths it’s proving to be a big hit on Youtube. I’ll put the vast majority of the viral interest down to Shakira’s slick as a cat dance moves and her perfectly formed derriere, but if the video is fairly standard fare, its subject matter is at least seemingly subversive. Particular lyrical highlights include ‘I’m starting to feel just a little abused, like a coffee machine in an office’ – now that’s got premenstrual irrationality written all over it.

Ah Woo ...

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Cheryl-Factor

So after all the controversy last week about Cheryl Cole having the audacity to pre-record the debut performance of her new single ‘Fight For This Love’ due to air on the X-Factor on Sunday night, it appears Cole had a change of heart and went live. Clad in red boxy military jacket and hat she was every inch the little drummer girl, flanked by a voluminous hip-hop dancing model army. It was slick and chorographically sound, if the vocals were perhaps a little shaky. Still, you gotta hand it to our Cheryl she was in fighting spirit and gracious to the end, thanking the audience and the X-Factor production team for embracing her to their hit-factory bosom. Even with her lippy seemingly smudged during her energetic routine she was radiant, in fact this make-up malfunction merely served to enhance her humility.

And that’s the problem with Chezza no matter how hard you try to dislike her you end up coming over all sycophantic, enjoying her dazzling veneers, bounteous hair and winning Geordie charm. From the controversial early days of Girls Aloud when it all could have gone so hideously wrong, to her marriage to Ashley Cole, she has struck the British public as a survivor and a fighter and that’s why she’s so well loved. And that’s why she’ll almost certainly be number one on Sunday and we’ll all be invited back for another round of the Cheryl Cole love-in next week.

Damn even when Simon saluted her at the end and she blew him a kiss back I liked her because although that kiss is mostly for him it’s also a little bit for everybody. Cheryl’s just nice like that. It struck me that although their faux rivalry is more the mechanics of the great, heaving X-Factor machine, churning out controversy at every turn, there is something genuine to the sparky quickness with which she defends her acts against his criticism. Like a loyal and spirited Chihuahua she’s ready to snap at the stacked heels and high-waisted trouser leg of Cowell. And who couldn't not enjoy, when moved by a performance, that she delicately wipes away her Swarovski crystal tears with her tattooed hand - a chav-tastic reminder that's she's not totally flawless.

I’m not sure she will repeat the success of her rookie year when she won with Alexandra Burke, particularly given Simon’s self-important and belligerent canvassing of himself and his acts, but she’ll almost certainly remain the reigning princess of reality telly. So what if Germaine Greer says she can’t be a feminist icon because she’s skinny, really its time our definitions of what is and isn’t inspirational to us womenfolk wasn’t defined by the size of our bodies. Cheryl Cole might look like a walking, talking, living doll, but she is no air-head. She’s a self-made woman and for now Germaine, that’s good enough for me.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Crotch of the Problem.

Sometimes you have to take your inspiration where you find it. This can be hard when you’re struggling within a mainstream culture to pick out the bits that fit in with a spirit that wants to sing to its own tune. I’m trying to find redeemable qualities in the music artists of our generation but it can be hard; Lady Gaga is an odd ball – but how much of her image is manufactured?

Herein lies the problem I have with our lady singers, it’s in the engineering. When I read that Lady Gaga aspires to uniqueness over pretty, I’m pleased, but then when I see her spread her legs in front of a male model in her latest video ‘Love Game’ I fear we’ve taken a step backwards in liberating women and a move forwards in the on-going hyper-sexualisation of our gender.

Has the crotch become the last area of the female body to finally be colonised? Magazines circle ‘camel toes’ in body halls of shame, and so bored are we apparently with faces that the paparazzi have resorted to taking under-skirt photographs. And now the fashion actively encourages it: body suits are to the crotch what belly tops were to the tummy.

And while I don’t subscribe to the idea that our lady-parts are something to be ashamed of, I do think that in making them so apparent popular culture has inadvertently turned on its head the old adage ‘the horror of nothing to see’ into the horror of seeing far too much. I worry that all this reduces these women to the sum of their individual ‘parts’ rather than the collective strength of their talent. And I ask is it time to put the clothes back on and let the music speak for itself?

Thankfully there are quiet challenges to this status-quo. La Roux is a good example. I cannot express enough what a sheer joy it was see Elly Jackson in a masculine suit in her latest music video ‘I’m Not Your Toy’. There is something intriguing to the pale ethereal face of this woman in understated make-up and giant quiff. Quite aside from Jackson’s gender, it is her image that is sexually ambiguous and androgynous and it forces you to think. And the thought I had was this - why I am I so amazed to watch a video where the female artist keeps her clothes on?

This kind of shock should be reserved for the pop crotch and all it represents with its blatant agenda. We should be saying ‘deary me, I do believe that woman’s forgotten to put on her trousers’ rather than encouraging her to take them off.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Love Happens, apparently.

Yesterday I went for a walk under the autumnal trees of my local park. Us Scot’s are fixated on the weather and surprisingly I am happy to report there was a fine misting of indecisive rain. One of those will it or won’t it rains where the air is more moist than wet. It’s the kind of environment that plays havoc with the hair of even the most dedicated GHD followers. There were chestnuts on the ground freed of their spiky shells and glistening with the deep red of their conker skins. Crunchy dappled leaves lay in wait for the enthusiastic jump and crunch of a foot.

Midway along the path a couple stopped for one of those spontaneous kisses that seemingly occurs mid-sentence. Perhaps one of them had said some adorable platitude, or maybe they were in the first-throws of love when common decency goes out the window in favour of public displays of affection that are oblivious to their fellow human’s stomachs. I dislike my reaction to such occurrences and I wonder what it would be like to be one of those girls who goes ‘awe’ in the face of romance or the chubby rosy cheeks of a baby or the Andrex puppy. But I can’t and this day’s reaction was compounded by a much darker and dangerous image.

The path leading to the exit of the park faces a busy junction where buses, taxis, and irate drivers compete to be released from the main thorough-fare. The lights were red and the cars were still, their low hum palpable ahead of the lights. My eyes were naturally drawn to the red double decker bus resting at the lights. I scanned its sizable bulk and noted it’s unusually clean shine but something distracted me from its simple engineering. There was a poster emblazoned on its side daubed in deceptively comforting hues of green and white. It was advertising a film. The film was called ‘Love Happens.’

Some things stir up irrational reactions no matter how hard you try to remain level headed; people who read the Telegraph, those who speak in clich├ęs, Hollyoaks, but nothing gets my back up more than the latest romantic comedy. I dislike their benign sentiment, implausible plots, the fact that they dine out on the idea that love is possible, just so long as you don’t have split ends and the guy’s face looks like it has been moulded from an impression of a 50’s leading man. I hate that when these insipid, two-dimension characters go out for dinner they incredulously sip water rather than glug wine. The woman inevitably works in floristry or in a book shop or as a waitress, while the man is a high flying corporate monkey or grieving for his dead wife.

Its ruddy make believe that sells to the delusional the false promise of ever-lasting love. And how dare a movie title tell us that ‘love happens’, a statement which quite frankly sits on the same trajectory as ‘shit happens’ – arbitrary, random, when we least expect it. I will not accept this platitude flown directly from Hollywood especially when the love it purports simply ‘happens’ is between Jennifer Aniston and some face-less actor who I’ve never seen before.

But perhaps I am dismissing this film out-of-hand. So I don’t like the title, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water, not when there’s an interactive movie website to explore first. So against my better judgement I visited the ‘Love Happens’ site. I watched the trailer and was impressed with Jennifer Aniston’s hair. Then I played the personality questionnaire based on one’s own perceptions drawn from an array of images. For the layman it determines whether you are deliriously happy (potential film viewer) or a miserable bastard (too clever to see this film). After being asked to identify hair balls as either ‘fluffy fuzzy wuzzies’ or ‘allergy causers’(I think we know how I responded) I was deemed an ‘icarian.’ ‘Icarians’ are according to ‘Love Happens’ in their own ‘myopic world ... see danger around every corner and have built up quite the snarky defences.’ Well as long as all this keeps me as far away from ‘Love Happens’ I’ll take my myopia glasses and wear them with pride.

Degas' Ladies

The other evening I was moisturising, as you do, rubbing body butter into my skin, when my flatmate walked in on me bent over, one foot on the toilet seat. She shrieked and recoiled in horror as one would if they encountered their flatmate’s arse in all its full moon glory.

And with a mixture of my own mortification, dented vanity and the new found confidence which can strangely enough be gained in nakedness I confronted her head on. For I was affronted that she was so taken aback by my bare bum! ‘Is it really that bad?’ I challenged. ‘No’ she said gently un-recoiling her horror ‘I was just embarrassed that I’d walked in on you.’ And so as I stood in the buff, bare as they day I was born and steeped in my new-found naked confidence she told me that I reminded her of one of Degas’ ladies at her toilette.

My first reaction was embarrassment. ‘But all those ladies we’re fat!’ Naturally showing up what an art philistine I am, feminism also took its first knock of the day. I backtracked, ‘Err well, I don’t mean that, but those ladies were rounder.’ Despite my feminist principles my first reaction to being likened to an oil-painting was the stirring of the grave anxiety that nags most women: that we are fat. Under the strip spot lights of the bathroom, furiously rubbing body butter into my skin, I had been exposed in Rubenesque glory and I thought I was fat.

But then, later that evening I went out to get an Observer, well I had to counter-act my out-of-hand criticism of my own body and a Sunday Mail wasn’t going to do that. The woman’s monthly featured a picture of a stunning and gloriously curvy model. Her name was Crystal Renn. With a name like that how could she be anything other than the bouncy espresso haired, bodacious beauty that she was and how interested I was to read that she is the world’s first size 14 Supermodel. A former anorexia sufferer, Renn turned her back on starvation to embrace her body in all its glory. And what a body!

Feminism is about challenging the objectification of women, but it’s my belief that that which is challenged is the kind of objectification which seeks to degrade, subjugate, dis-empower, gratuitously sexualise and particularly that which is for Capitalism’s gain. Okay so Renn’s a fashion model, she’s in the business of selling clothes but I’m going make an exception in this case because when we are not body buttering us ladies do need clothes, otherwise there would be zig-zagging cars and alas white van-drivers' heads would probably explode.

As I looked at the pictures of an exceptionally beautiful woman my first thoughts were not ones of painful jealousy, or anger, or the more usual benign reaction that I’ve ‘see it all before’ but rather a more enjoyable one. It was a liberating and simple enjoyment of the looking at the human form in all its glory, without scrutiny, without anxiety but instead with unadulterated admiration for the image on the page. And I had a thought. If I could think so highly of Renn, then I have to be kinder to myself.

A little later that night I searched the inter-web for Degas’ ladies at their toilette. I looked at the images - really looked at them with refreshed eyes. A woman’s back is a beautiful thing, especially when there isn’t a distracting protruding spine. These women had slim waists that gave way to the curve and swell of well formed buttocks. Yes they had rolls, gentle creases and little bellies. But they also had wonderful red hair, plaited, or un-braided in all its glory and they were not fat.

They were women in all their naturalness, organic and tending to the business of their toilette. I smiled at my new-found-knowledge that my flatmate’s remark was an original compliment – it’s not every day your image is likened to the painting of a great master. But in future I’ll lock the bathroom door for she is a budding life-drawer and this particular lady although feeling better about herself, isn’t quite ready to be immortalised as one of those ladies at their toilette. Not yet at least.