Archive | August, 2013

What’s in a Name? (Or ‘Why Chelsea Manning is the new Snickers’)

23 Aug

Chelsea Manning

The prisoner formerly known as Bradley Manning and referred to with the pronouns “he”, “him” and “his” has announced that she now wishes to be called Chelsea (like the borough, hotel and First Daughter) and referred to with “she” and “her”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It seems hardly a year goes by without a member or former member of the armed forces very publicly announcing their decision to switch gender. Indeed, the only transgender friend I’ve ever had was a former marine and Gulf War veteran, but that’s another story.

As with any current event, Ms Manning’s decision is ruffling feathers; most of them belonging to those who think the media should be more active in referring to her as “Chelsea”, “she” and “her”, rather than “Bradley”, “he”, “him” and “his”.

Random sample from Twitter, using the search "Chelsea Manning media"

Random sample from Twitter, using the search “Chelsea Manning media”

Now, while it’s true that the media outlets who have observed Manning’s wishes tend to operate at the more liberal end of the spectrum, I can still sympathise with those who are sticking to “Bradley”. For one thing, I’m not convinced their reluctance is entirely down to disrespect or transphobia. I read several comments (on Twitter, of course) which ran along the lines of, “If we can get used to Snoop Lion, surely it’s not so hard to refer to her as Chelsea Manning.”

The problem with that argument is that I, for one, can’t get used to Snoop Lion. Nor did I take, very easily, to P Diddy. Going back further, it took me three whole years before I could bring myself to ask for a “Snickers” in the school tuck shop. “Marathon” had heritage, gravitas, a name that stretched back into classical antiquity. What the fuck was a “Snickers”? In the village where I grew up there was a corner shop called Gittins’s, run by a Mr Gittins. When he retired, some time around 1991, the shop was taken over by the Dimis family, but people carried on calling it Gittins’s for another five or six years.

It's now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

It’s now run by a Mr and Mrs Premier, apparently.

Though I’m sure that there are some in the media, particularly in its more Dacre-ish and Murdochian crevices, who’ll carry on calling Chelsea Manning “Bradley” out of spite and bigotry, for many journalists it’s simply the case that they know referring to “Chelsea Manning” will confuse the vast majority of their readership. Let’s not forget, Manning only announced all this yesterday. Are we supposed to expect journalists, newspapers, TV stations and their millions of readers and viewers to change gear so suddenly? If transgender people are encouraged and expected to go through a period of transition, a kind of slow morph from their old identity to their new one, isn’t it logical to expect the media’s representation of that person to do likewise?

For one thing, combing through the online coverage of Ms Manning’s statement, it’s clear that this is exactly what most outlets are doing. The Telegraph’s piece even switches from “he” to “she” mid-story. The Daily Mail, while referring to “Bradley Manning”, uses “her” and “she” from the start. Are people offended because only hours after the story broke these journalists mention the name that still presumably appears on Chelsea Manning’s birth certificate, driving licence, passport and military ID?

While we’re on the thorny, problematic and positively minefield-like subject of gender identity and nomenclature, I do wonder how equal rights for transgender people are ever supposed to progress, when so much of the dialogue surrounding them is rife with infighting, and seems deliberately designed to attach an even greater number of labels to people. Case in point: The word “cisgender”.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched "Cisgender".  I think I almost broke the internet.

I thought we needed another pic, so I Google image searched “Cisgender”. I think I almost broke the internet.

For those unfamiliar with it, to be “cisgender” means to exist comfortably in the gender in which you were born. You don’t tend to hear many men refer to themselves as “cisgender men”, but it seems to have caught on among some feminists who are broadly sympathetic to those women who were born men. I’ve read as much as I could about the term, hoping that at some point it would begin to make sense to me, that I could see how its use might make the world a better or more sensible place, but it just doesn’t.

To my mind, a man who becomes a woman wishes to be thought of as a woman. Once that transition has happened, she is a woman. Same goes for any man who was born a woman. He is now a man. The invention of a word like “cisgender” might be done with the best of intentions, but its effect, I believe, is one of further delineation, marking a boundary between “real women/men” and “fake” ones. A word like “cisgender” contributes nothing to the world but the pathologizing of everyday life.

A lot of offence is taken about the use of words like “normal” and “abnormal”, in part because we falsely attribute positive and negative values to those words, when all they describe is a general summing up of averages. When talking about what’s normal and abnormal, you’ll invariably hear some bright spark say, “But hey… What’s normal, anyway?” or “No-one’s normal.”

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Shortly after he tries telling you that the world would be a better place if they made smoking powerful cannabis compulsory at the UN.

Well, sorry to break this to you, Stoned Straw Man, but there is such a thing as normal. There are norms. I, for one, am abnormal chiefly in two ways. I’m left handed, in a world in which 90% of people are right handed, and gay in a world in which the majority of people are attracted to the opposite sex. Should I be ashamed of being abnormal? Of course not. There are plenty of ways in which I’m perfectly normal – I’m average height, I speak the most commonly spoken language on the planet and I earn a fairly average wage for the country I live in – but I’m not proud of any of that stuff, so why should I be ashamed of the ways in which I stand out from the norm?

To describe oneself as “cisgender” seems like a desperate attempt to refuse your normality – which is just pathetic – or to try and normalise somebody else’s abnormality, which suggests you consider the abnormal inherently wrong. It tortures the English language by over-complicating it, without adding anything meaningful, and it creates differences and divisions where none should exist.

Anyway. That’s pretty much all I have to say on the subject. These are early, hastily-sketched thoughts which are subject to change; for example, if someone should convince me that a word like “cisgender” serves a clear and valid purpose.

Next time I’ll write about something lightweight and frothy, like Celebrity Big Brother, or Rylan Clark’s crazy, crazy teeth.

Because seriously... What the fuck is going on here?

Because seriously… What the fuck is going on here?

“No offence, but…”

14 Aug

No offence

Professional atheist Richard Dawkins was in the news last week, after comments he made regarding the number of Muslim Nobel laureates (10) compared with the number of Nobel laureates to have graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge (32). In typical diplomatic style, Dawkins tweeted, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Now, there are plenty of things that are a little off with this statement. For one thing, limited by 140 characters, it doesn’t go much beyond the level of “snarky dig”. Dawkins didn’t ask why this is, or offer an explanation of why this is. Given his agenda – and he does have one – it’s clear he was suggesting the religion itself holds back scientific research and learning, thus affecting the number of Muslims ever likely to win a Nobel prize. He was also acknowledging, albeit in a way that sounds a little bitchy (again – that 140 character limit affects tone), that Islam’s contribution to science during the Middle Ages was significant.

Predictably enough, there was a backlash. Predominantly left wing pundits the length and breadth of Britain, were up in arms, with Chavs author Owen Jones leading the charge. Dawkins was accused of racism, he responded by pointing out that Islam isn’t a race, the pundits were even more outraged, nothing was resolved, and everyone stomped off home in a sulk, like the aftermath of a particularly fractious game of tag.

What was interesting, however, at least in my time line, was that the majority of those telling Dawkins to shut up weren’t Muslims. The Muslims I follow on Twitter, including the Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hassan and Radical author Maajid Nawaz, may have had a chuckle about Dawkins’s comments, and shared the odd tweet about how the world’s Muslims still hold more Nobel prizes than Richard Dawkins, but they all seemed to agree that within his badly-worded, clumsy tweet there was a grain of truth.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

Two, if you include the bit about Medieval Islamic science being awesome.

It is interesting that with a world population of over 1 billion there have been only ten Nobel laureates, and that only two of those were in the sciences. Of course, there could be many reasons for this. A Euro-American bias, for instance. Or the relative poverty of many predominantly Muslim countries. A scientist would – or at least should – factor all that in before co-opting the bare statistic to make a point. But even when we do factor that in, two Nobel prizes in science seems awfully low, given that some predominantly Muslim countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates) are so insanely wealthy, and their economies so dependent on science and technology.

Of course, it would be slightly odd if only Richard Dawkins were making this point, but the fact is, he’s not. In his excellent book Islam and its Discontents, the Islamic scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb asks more or less the exact same question. Of course, unlike Dawkins, Meddeb gives his argument room to breathe, and makes the point more clearly, but his tone is still one of anger and dismay – not at the Nobel committee, but at his own religion – or, at least, some schools of it – for stifling the sciences. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian author Irshad Manji asks similar questions in her book The Trouble With Islam Today. And Meddeb and Manji aren’t alone.

Meddeb and Manji

Meddeb and Manji

It’s predictable that pundits such as Owen Jones should choose to ignore those voices, as they sought to paint Dawkins as a frothing-at-the-mouth Islamophobe. For some on the Left, any non-Muslim criticism of the contemporary practices of Islam counts as Islamophobia, and even when those practices (female circumcision, stoning, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny etc) are so clearly barbaric, they can’t quite bring themselves to condemn them with the same fervour with which they would condemn the troglodytes of the EDL and BNP.

Not long after the Dawkins brouhaha had died down, UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom caused another storm in a similarly-sized teacup when he criticised the UK government for sending billions in aid to “Bongo Bongo Land”. Again, people were “offended”. Bloom himself, looking like Victor Meldrew and almost literally swivel-eyed with bellicose indignation, popped up on Channel 4 News, for an hilariously stroppy interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Buried somewhere inside his pomposity, Bloom actually made one valid point.

Godfrey "Bongo Bongo Land" Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn't taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

Godfrey “Bongo Bongo Land” Bloom, about to storm out of an interview because his interviewer isn’t taking the subject of foreign aid seriously.

When told that the Labour MP Rushanara Ali was offended by his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land”, Bloom replied, “She’s a political opponent. We all know the political game.”

Now, ignoring for one moment the fact that Bloom is a bigoted old prick, we should acknowledge that he has a point. Only seconds earlier Guru-Murthy had pointed out to Bloom that “Bongo Bongo Land” invariably refers to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Ali is of Bengali descent. Whatever offence she took couldn’t have been personal; a sleight against her family or her ancestors. And she is an opponent. In effect, she was taking offence – like Owen Jones et al – on somebody else’s behalf.

I would ask, was anyone genuinely offended by Bloom’s remarks? On hearing them, was anyone genuinely upset? Or rather, does his use of the phrase “Bongo Bongo Land” simply confirm what we already know; that UKIP’s members are mostly stuffy Daily Mail readers who play to the gallery, and whose cultural reference points and whose vision of an ideal Britain are all cemented somewhere in the mid-1930s? 

"Things were going swimmingly until this happened..."

“Things were going swimmingly until this happened…”

The point I’m trying to make is that in taking offence on behalf of the people of “Bongo Bongo Land” (and not just ridiculing those who say it) you’re practically admitting that there is such a place, and lending the phrase (and its user) far more validity than they deserve. In defending Islam against any criticism from a non-Muslim, you’re treating Muslims, and the different schools of Islam, as homogeneously and simplistically as the likes of Richard Dawkins and – at the far end of that particular spectrum – Tommy Robinson.

I say all this not as an apologia for Dawkins or Bloom, because neither deserves it. Dawkins has a habit of retweeting anything against Islam without checking who said it, thereby forming a rather queasy alliance with some genuinely unpleasant people, while Bloom is just a fucking idiot. Rather, this is an argument against the far too predictable Twitter mob, which leaps into action, ready to shut the door on a debate, when sometimes those it’s seeking to defend would like that discussion to go further.

A Few Thoughts on the 12th Doctor (or ‘Why I’m Wrong About Everything’)

5 Aug

New Doctor

I am one of life’s worriers. Sometimes I think it’s genetic. I come from Welsh stock, and we’re a nation renowned for its dourness. I heard one friend refer to us as “Italians in the rain”. Darker, swarthier and more phlegmatic than our neighbours “over the bridge”, but tinged with pessimism.

So… I am a worrier, and as I get older I find I don’t just worry about things; I panic about them. I get mini anxiety attacks over the silliest of things. Take last night’s Doctor Who Live, for example. This was the very showbizzy way in which the BBC announced who has been cast in the role of the 12th Doctor. I spent the days building up to this show (which was only announced a few days ago) in a state of mild disinterest.

“Oh, I’m not really that bothered,” I thought, fooling myself. “As long as it’s somebody good, I really don’t mind.”

Then, about an hour before the show, I started to panic. There was mention, on Twitter, of fresh-faced 26-year-old Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard, currently appearing in The White Queen, and who played David Bailey – opposite Karen Gillan’s Jean Shrimpton – in a BBC4 drama that screened last year. Reading too much into the space between this mention and a tweet written by a friend who might potentially know who had been cast, I decided that it was definitely going to be Aneurin Barnard, and my heart sank.

Still. It could have been worse.

Still. It could have been worse.

Not because I don’t rate him (Barnard, I mean, not Pasquale) as an actor. He’s been very good in everything I’ve seen him in. No… My heart sank because the worrying hemisphere of my brain (and yes… my brain has a whole hemisphere dedicated to worry), had created the following scenario:

INT. STEVEN MOFFAT’S OFFICE. DAY

Steven Moffat is on the phone to one of the HEAD HONCHOS at BBC America (because, in my head, this is the kind of thing he has to do all the time). We cut back and fore between Moffat’s office (with a view of grey skies and rain through its window), and the office of the HEAD HONCHO, which has a view of the Hollywood sign. The HEAD HONCHO is tanned, and has very white teeth.

HEAD HONCHO:

Steve, Steve, Steve… Listen to me. You’ve gotta cast someone young. Dave Tennant was younger than… uh… whatsisname… guy out of Gone in 60 Seconds. Bernie Ecclestone.

STEVEN MOFFAT:

Christopher.

HEAD HONCHO:

Whatever. Neil Tennant was younger that him. Matt’s younger than Neil. It stands to reason that the new kid…

STEVEN MOFFAT:

It doesn’t have to be a kid.

HEAD HONCHO:

It stands to reason that the new kid should be younger than Matt. Now, listen, I’ve been making a couple of calls, talking to a few contacts. Turns out they’ve finished filming the Twilight movies. Which means… now, don’t get too excited… but this means that Taylor Lautner is available from October.

STEVEN MOFFAT:

Taylor who? I don’t even know who… Isn’t she a girl?

HEAD HONCHO:

You’re thinking of Taylor Swift. But now you mention it… New companion?

STEVEN MOFFAT:

We’re not having Taylor Swift as the new companion.

His face like this, throughout.

His face like this, throughout.

In my head, the Powers That Be would get bullied by accountants into picking someone young and pretty, and the show would paint itself into a corner for the rest of its days, casting ever-younger actors in the role of the Doctor until, by the 75th Anniversary, we would end up watching a 6-year-old in a three-piece suit, turban and flip-flops run around, pointing his sonic screwdriver at things and saying, “Pew pew! Pew pew!”

And I was wrong.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved than when, in the seconds before Zoe Ball said his name, they showed a close-up of the Doctor-to-be’s hand, and it was a hand that’s lived. Not some puppy-fattish collection of digits which has never seen a hard day’s work, never held a cigarette, never had to put up shelves, or done its fair share of washing up. This was a dad’s hand.

“The 12th Doctor,” said Zoe Ball. “A hero for a new generation. It’s…Peter Capaldi!” (There was a nervous pause as if she was terrified she might say, “Keeter Pacaldi!”)

The audience cheered. I cheered. I think everyone cheered. Except, possibly, the guys and gals at Den of Geek.

It's almost like they wanted to write the 1D piece.

It’s almost like they wanted to write about One Direction.

But everyone else cheered.

Obviously, it’s early days, too early to speculate about “what kind of Doctor” Capaldi will be (though this won’t, I fear, stop a great many fans from doing just that). And, obviously, his tenure in the TARDIS will depend entirely on the quality of stories he’s given. But, in short, I am over the moon about his being cast, and if this incident has proven anything, it’s that I should worry a lot less, and that when I worry, I am invariably wrong about everything.

In fact, if this post has any point at all, it’s that to be a fan of a long-running show like Doctor Who is to exist in a state of permanent and wrong-headed worry. Despite the fact that this will be the 11th time the lead actor has changed, Doctor Who fans still worry about it. We worry when there’s a change of show runner. We worry about the ratings. We worry that the show is no longer as popular as it once was, and we worry that it’s getting too popular. (I once read a fan comment wishing the show could get cancelled so that conventions would feel “more intimate” again.)

A friend once shared a convention anecdote in which two fans dressed as the 6th Doctor had noisy sex in a neighbouring hotel room. That's just too intimate.

A friend once shared a convention anecdote in which two fans dressed as the 6th Doctor had noisy sex in a neighbouring hotel room. That’s just too intimate.

Worry, in the case of fandom, leads to pointless speculation, because there is – in the mind of the fan – nothing worse than not knowing. Except, perhaps, admitting that you don’t know. You can guarantee that before he’s even set foot in the TARDIS, Capaldi’s first episode will have been critiqued, at length, based on what very little information is made available. Some fans will have made up their mind about the next series, from start to finish, months before it airs. But not me.

This coming Friday I’m appearing at Nine Worlds Geekfest, in Heathrow, taking part in a round table about Doctor Who’s gay fanbase, and I’m fairly sure I’ll be asked, at some point, “what kind of Doctor” I think Capaldi will be. And do you know what? I have no idea. I don’t know what personality he’ll have, what other Doctor he’ll most resemble, what costume he’ll choose, or what kind of stories he will appear in. Sadly… That isn’t the kind of answer that goes down well, so I should probably quit writing this, and start working on something clever, preferably incorporating “Schrodinger’s Cat”, and a minimum of passive aggression.