It’s me in a wedding dress! (But don’t get excited)

30 Apr

It was my parent’s 22nd wedding anniversary this weekend – in honour of the occasion here are some photographs taken on the 28th April, ooh, rather a few years ago now!

I hope those made you smile!

Sorry for the dire lack of writing recently, my dissertation and looming three hour exam have somewhat assaulted my free time!

“I believe, ma’am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.” – Lizzie, Pride and Prejudice

27 Mar

I know I haven’t written in ages, and I apologise. I am particularly sad to have missed out on posts I had planned for Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day, but also such gems as Steak & BJ Day [on March 14th, so we can all be prepared for next year!]. To make up for this lack of dedication I will now present you with an anecdote from my weekend.

The backstory: I should state from the off that I’m not the usual target for male club predators; I’m not in the habit of showing off my underwear as an outfit, and any attempt in chatting me up usually ends in a) telling them to fuck off [if they are obnoxious], b) slapping them [I’ve only resorted to this once, the guy in question was seriously invading my personal space], c) running away [in my experience the most effective method when they are too drunk to reason with] or d) informing them with much faux regret [if they are not obnoxious twats] that I have a super amazing boyfriend already, so thanks, but no thanks.

So: we are in a club, on a Saturday night, and I am wearing a playsuit with no tights. This could be an important and relevant point to the story as these two things rarely happen, and I was, as my companions Maths Geek, Clev, Dr. Love and K-3 Informed me, looking rather leggy. It first began as we took a breather from the various opportunities offered for merriment at this establishment, namely a ball-pit, bouncy castle, and an air hockey table that Dr. Love and I competed at with probably quite unseemly enthusiasm. A couple of feet away at another seating area a company of young men sat, occasionally looking our way, as we hit each other over the head with inflatable dolphins, changed our flats for heels, and generally giggled away.

One young chap in particular kept giving us the eye. Little was thought of it, until, having been to the dancefloor and come back to rest again [Dr. Love was suffering a little], the gentleman in question persisted in what can only be termed as “staring”, and began a surreptitious progress towards my end of the sofa, until we were in a state of such physical intimacy that I could barely move without bumping into some part of him. Dr. Love then discovered to her great amusement that the cunning fellow had a phone number written on his arm – Maths Geek later remorselessly questioned him on this, demanding to know whether it was his own – he claimed it was a friend’s, and quickly rubbed it off before we could dial it to find out…

Now, despite the fact we were sitting as close as two bosom bodies, and the fact that probably at least two or three hours had passed, and even despite Maths Geek spontaneously reaching over and undoing his top button, the man remained mute. He did not say hello, or hi, or anything remotely akin to a greeting – he sat, occasionally caught my eye and smiled with a suggestive eyebrow wiggle, but never said a word. This was quite the opposite to the scenarios I was used to encountering at clubs, where getting an unwelcome acquaintence to shut up and leave you alone is more frequently the problem. I actually felt uncomfortable because nothing had been said, but the longer he left it, the more difficult it was to start a plausible or casual conversation, and I felt strangely determined that I shouldn’t encourage him by saying hello for him – after all, I was out with my “girlies” [an excellent Chem phraseology] and his internal anguish was not really my problem.

His friends then demanded it was time to leave. Evidently this brought the matter to a crisis, as, after some protests that he would stay [awkwardly made right next to me, with no one else but Dr. Love and I in the vicinity], he was persuaded to depart. But not for long – we watched him walk down to the dancefloor and exit, then come back up the stairs to where we were seated, only to walk past and take his perambulation once over – back down to the dancefloor, back up the stairs and – “do you want to dance?”

Oh. That’s it then, he finally plucked up the courage, crap, what do I say!? “I admire your persistence..” I begin, but he can’t hear me over the exorbitant bass emitting from the speakers. I resign myself to play the cruel heart-crusher, and simply say “I have a boyfriend, I’m sorry,” trying to look as genuinely apologetic as I can, which was relatively easy, as the only really obnoxious thing he had done was to uninvitedly help himself to my glass of tap water.

He walked off, probably never to be seen again.

Now, I haven’t told you this story to highlight my status as some kind of sex goddess who brings misery on hapless chaps. The real nugget of interest, for me, is the reaction of my friends.

Dr. Love thought he was a weirdo. [probably accurate]

K-3 was primarily preoccupied with her own conquests on the dancefloor.

Maths Geek told me off.

According to Maths Geek, I had committed a terrible sin – I had cruelly and unnecessarily crushed the heart and self-confidence of a man who would now be too terrified ever to approach a girl again, and it was all my fault. I had acted foolishly in refusing to dance – what harm could it have done?

I do see her point. I should really have said hello, made some polite conversation, and made the poor boy aware of Chem’s existence before he wasted an entire evening. The trouble is, I’m a bit crap at small talk, and there never seems to be a good moment to drop in your unavailability without feeling like you’ve poked someone unexpectedly and unnecessarily hard with a pointy stick, right in the eye. If you say it too late, you’re leading them on, but say it too early, and you’re jumping the gun – what if they have no romantic designs upon you at all?  Then you will come across as over-defensive and probably a little bit weird.

The thing is, though, I would have felt ten times worse than I did [and I really did feel bad for ages, wondering if I was too harsh] if I had said yes, gone and danced, and waited until his hands went exploring to say “hold up there old boy: actually I’m not interested at all.” I would have felt like I was leading him on, which I would have been, as there was no chance it was going anywhere remotely amorous, and it was all too painfully clear from the previous few hours that this was more than just a casual request from him– it had a lot riding on it.

I know many girls will think that my refusal was silly, over-thought or old fashioned, but if I flipped it round the other way, I know I would probably be unhappy if Chem was off dancing with other girls who didn’t know about me. Maths Geek may disagree, but that’s allowed. Perhaps my dislike of dancing with other men is irrational, based on previous experiences in which men have taken too many liberties [dancerape, anyone?] and I should be more laid back about the whole thing.

I do of course see the funny side of it – and this was only increased when I told Chem about the incident, whose advice to me was “seems like I should lend you some sort of stick to keep them off you,” only to be topped by my mother’s solution – “I’m going to buy you and your sister fake engagement rings!”



“Goody! A Man At Last!”

1 Mar

February the 29th is almost over for another four years, and here I am tapping away madly at my keyboard to finish this post while it is still relevant. Before anyone starts excitedly hat shopping, no, I did not take the opportunity to act all feminist and propose. Even though Chem was in a suit today, which, in his opinion, was a strong deciding factor in my thinking that jumping in his lap was a good idea in the first place, but that’s another story…

Let’s start with some history – after all I’m a history student, and the popular appeal of this tradition is, well, its traditional-ness. It’s a day in which the tradition is to go against tradition, but interestingly, it’s not British – how untraditional! According to this brief podcast by Katherine Parkin of Monmouth University, the custom originated in America as “a safety valve for women’s frustration at being dependent on men and deciding their marital destiny,” but was really only “a form of false empowerment” as it only happens once every four years. In waiting for the day of socially-acceptable female proposals to come around, we are in fact, still waiting. Choosing not to wait makes you both impatient and desperate – perhaps the reason no-one has proposed to you yet, dear, is because you are too fat, old, and ugly?

We can see such viewpoints in the, what I find rather charming, custom from the early 20th century of sending leap day postcards. [credit to this post for finding these]

In this first example we see two rather coarse and dowdy women exclaiming over their prize catch – a tamed leap year husband. The suggestion is that the husband has been emasculated [he is after all silent in this exchange], and has been “caught” as if prey to a predator. From Chrétien de Troyes to Mills & Boons, we all know that the man is meant to be the hunter, and the wife, his trophy. Traditional gender and sexual roles have been reversed, and the artist signals a clear warning to the unattached man – run, before you, too, gets caught!

This message is found in many guises in the postcards, but if this isn’t caution enough, here is an example that reminds men of the companion they can expect if they are caught.

Another pokes fun at the idea of female desperation.

I particularly enjoy this one, which depicts an unsuspecting gentleman about to be overrun by “ladies in waiting,” and which reminds me somewhat of the moment when a male specimen steps out of the love lift in Take Me Out.

Many of the post cards are light hearted, and even, to my eyes, encouraging and sympathetic in tone. I like the following examples which seem to celebrate the act of stepping outside of gender roles, each in different ways.

The custom of sending postcards does not seem to have survived, but the attitudes which they reflect evidently do. I am advised by Cadet that there is a thorough discussion on the topic in Grazia, but since I have Cosmo to hand, their input will have to do. In an article from the March 2012 issue, entitled “Proposing – His Job or Yours?” two women speak out with opposite views on the matter.

Anabelle Allan leads with the tale of her meticulously planned proposal, which sees her position herself firmly in control of the situation – “I like to be sure of my decisions. If Greg has asked me, I might have had to say “I’ll come back to you” – not because I didn’t love him, but because I like to think things through.” She further remarks that “I’ve known women who have waited years for their boyfriend to get their act together. Some are still waiting. In all other ways, they’re modern, progressive women, but when it comes to marriage, they think only the man can decide when the time is right […] Marriage is a partnership and you should be able to tell him what you want long before you say “I do”.”

Anabelle’s attitude to the modern proposal clearly reflects attitudes to modern marriage – why should we follow a tradition whose merit is to perpetuate the gender and power roles which, for most people, are undesirable and unacceptable. Greg was apparently “bowled over by the idea that his “hot woman” wanted to marry him. He jokes I stole his thunder, but it made him feel like a real catch, so he loved it really.” Here, Greg doesn’t seem to mind much that he has been “caught.”

In contrast, Lucy Ball regales us with a grim cautionary tale: she proposed to her man after six weeks. He said no – but proposed himself, two years later. The major difference between Lucy and Anabelle’s proposal is that Lucy’s was spontaneous – “I hadn’t thought of it until that moment, and was crestfallen when he didn’t immediately say yes.” This seems self-evidently unsurprising, but Lucy goes on to argue that the “first time around, I hadn’t stopped to think how Ronnie would feel about not asking me. He’d been brought up to believe that the man proposes, and I hadn’t known him well enough after six weeks to understand that. If he hadn’t had the chance, he would’ve felt he’d missed out.” For Lucy, proposal is clearly a male prerogative, a right to which she foolishly and in a highly irrational [ironically feminine?] way made claim. She continues: “Also, he asked my dad first, which I realised was a big moment for both of them […] It worked for me too. It was exciting that it was out of my control – after all, what woman doesn’t love being pursued? […] If he hadn’t done it, I never would’ve experienced that head-spinning feeling of being asked to marry the man I love.” The very feeling of being out of control of the situation fulfils Lucy’s fantasies, as agency is given to her father in the very traditional, patriarchal way.

But, the emphasis of this fantasy is on the act of being asked – and, although Lucy was clearly desperate to say yes, it is still the act of being asked to make a decision which she finds so powerful and seductive. In Anabelle’s case, her feeling of order and control would doubtless have been majorly undermined if Greg had refused her.

I think what comes out of these two tales – and I have to make a judgement myself, as Cosmo does not provide one – is that in any proposal scenario, neither party is entirely in a total position of power. This has been enabled by the fact that women are not dependent on marriage for economic livelihoods or social acceptability, and marriage itself is an equal partnership. No matter what historical gender ideology is at play within the act of proposing itself, the question is, more often than not, simply one of love – and I don’t think any woman can admit to not enjoying a bit of good old fashioned gender roles now and then, when we have the freedom to enjoy them as traditions, not fetters.

I’m equally sure that all women [well, at least the ones in my house] are “guilty” [but why should we feel guilty??] of speculatively imagining the moment in which we will become “the future Mrs so and so.” I won’t embarrass anyone by discussing myself directly here, but I will indulge you all with an anecdote. We were discussing [as you do] the order in which we would all get married. Nurse Bliss assured me most vehemently that it would be me: and furthermore, I was to eschew a traditional horse and carriage and travel to my wedding in a life-size replica Tardis. I’m confident that advertising my proposal with this suggestion will ensure no man can resist me next leap year, and I’ll accrue at least twenty Doctor-Who enthusiast fiancés.

As you may have noticed, I have cunningly overcome my lack of proposal and engagement life-experience by discussing other peoples. For my final example, let me introduce my mother. Feminism is definitely in my blood, as she proposed to my dad – and it wasn’t even a leap year!

I rang her up to ask for a reflection on the matter. Her first response was that it was yonks ago and she could hardly remember it. Her second: “to all those ladies out there with men who won’t, come up quick and pop the question before it’s too late!

She then prevaricated, denying that she’d proposed at all – it was more of a roundabout, hinting remark [at this point I can hear Cadet in the background, sounding indignant at mother’s lack of romance and/or memory]. She tells me the tradition of male proposals is “old fashioned,” “a bit ridiculous really” – “why does it matter who asks?”

Gran and Gramps were pleased, Dad was nearly thirty by then, they wanted him to get on with it!” [Dad had actually already been engaged once, but that’s another story.] “And then it was all off then! Meet the parents…” At this point Cadet interrupts in outrage that they hadn’t already met, and mother defers the phone to my father, a less reluctant story-teller.

They were staying in mum’s flat in Beckenham, when an Argentinian business associate of my father, whose name was Philip [my scribbled handwriting has unfortunately made his last name illegible], invited them to dinner in London. It transpired he had recently gotten married, and was bringing his Mexican wife over for their honeymoon.

They ate dinner at a restaurant which my father called the “Citada” or “Cicada” [mother was no hope at verifying this], and later that evening, were sat abed talking. My mother mentioned something about getting married. “I said what do you mean, and she looked at me and said, well, shall we get married then!? And well, the rest is history.”

The Vagenda: it’s very good.

24 Feb

For those readers who share my interest in gender and feminism, or at the very least possess a functioning brain cell – I discovered this blog today, and I think you might like it.

Firstly, it’s highly amusing,  and secondly, it made me think “thank god, someone feels exactly the same way as I do about Cosmo.”

This article provides some really interesting background info on the site, and I particularly liked this summary of the authors’ approaches:

The Vagenda isn’t offering feminism-lite or the much-mocked “fun feminism” (where empowerment can mean little more than Sex and the City-style consumption); the site also carries articles about domestic violence. This is fighting feminism where the weapon is satirical wit.

The Vagenda

[Image shamelessly stolen from Vagenda post]

P.s the observant among you will have discovered that the appearance of this blog has changed – this was due to a suggestion by Mother that a list of my previous articles to the side would be very helpful [and unfortunately my old design template didn’t have the functionality for that].

May I draw your attention not only to the new “Blogroll” section [I haven’t figured out how to change the name of this to something cool, yet], where The Vagenda resides. You will also find there a link to Olivercooperwrites, which I hope you will enjoy with equal pleasure.

There’s also several new fancy features like a “tag cloud” where you can click on a topic and internet magic will take you to everything I have written and “tagged” as relating to it. Oh, there’s also a “Follow Me!” button, if you feel like it 😉

To my Cuddlebunny

20 Feb

The Valentines card I sent my sister this year

So I’m weighing into this a little too late, but hopefully you can all forgive me for my tardiness. Or you can just save this to read on February 14th 2013.

Valentines Day. This year’s has been and gone, and the nation has gone back to normal. The daily influx of emails reminding me to buy scented candles, heart-shaped cooking utensils, perfume, knickers, chocolates, wine, new outfits, rampant rabbits, and personalised cufflinks for my man, have all finally abated. The accusation that Valentines is too commercialised is well established and, more than that, true, but that doesn’t to my eye mean we can write it off straight away – after all, the Easter chocolates were already in the shops when they rolled out the Thornton’s selection boxes and five pound rose bouquets in our local Tesco Extra, and, like a holiday revolving around the giving of chocolate, surely one revolving around the giving of love can hardly be a bad thing?

The trouble is, what with all these emails and shop window displays and the incessant conversations of “so what are you getting him” and “how much are you spending,”  it’s easy for the act of giving to be displaced by the act of purchasing. The purchases made, moreover, are straying further and further from the realm of thoughtful gifts into the realms of useless tat – sure, some rose petals on the bed are a classic Valentines aesthetic, but when Marks and Spencer start selling Valentines crackers [I kid you not], I think the whole thing has gone a little too far. The industry is conning us into shelling out not just for the love between individuals, but the collective universal of love as shared by humanity: anything red, pink, or with a heart on it goes.

To me, Valentines day is like a dessert menu presented to an overstuffed diner – you are repelled by the thought of such a superfluous and unnecessary purchase [after all, you don’t really need a pudding, you do have a perfectly acceptable packet of chocolate digestives at home], but at the same time, you feel embarrassed to admit to the expectant waitress and assembled companions, “I’ll pass, thanks.” Perhaps we fear someone will think we have fat issues, perhaps we don’t want to look like a cheap-skate or a spoil-sport, or perahps we just don’t want to look boring – but usually our secret salivations over the overpriced slice of chocolate fudge cake results in us opening up our purses and splashing out the better part of a twenty-pound note on some plastic heart-shaped fairy lights, or [insert your own foolish expenditure here].

Of course this analogy works best if we imagine the baker and purveyor of this cake to be none other than the love of your life, the central orb of your horizon – and so in rejecting their culinary delights you somehow reject the entire relationship, and quite embarrassingly so, in front of a crowd of friends and strangers alike who will condemn you for your inhumanity. The chocolate fudge cake is conflated with love itself, most especially in the eyes of those who would like to see you pay to eat it. No-one wants to look like the Valentines-Scrooge.

I have witnessed this exact scenario in action, about mid-January to be precise, when I began a comprehensive online search for Valentines cards [oh, the shame of such a confession!] Anyway; my housemate Clev [who, by the by, has intimated she might like to write a guest post for this blog!] had happily chosen to bow out of the whole Valentines rigmarole. That is, she was content until I shared my searches with her, and before you can say St Val’s your uncle, she and H had made plans to eat dinner at an overpriced Mexican restaurant, and H was flexing all his muscles of cunning [a.k.a. asking me] to remember which expensive shoes she had implied she would like to receive. But! Hold-up, a few days later and Clev had relapsed – the restaurant menu was too expensive, and actually she couldn’t afford to eat anything but beans on toast for the next few weeks, let alone a vegetarian fajita. She refused on principle to let H pay, and proceeded to plan Plan. B, which involved a romantic dinner at our house.

Unfortunately for her, her trials were not over. As I discovered to my chagrain when googling cookie recipes, the cumulative cost of flour, sugar, eggs, milk, chocolate and vanilla essence reached substantially more than a batch of freshly baked Tesco cookies. Similarly the ingredients for Clev’s homemade lasagne, garlic bread, and dessert had to be sourced, as did potentially a new outfit [even though the arctic temperatures of our kitchen require at least ten layers at all times], new lingerie, candles, chocolates, and a card. Now, I know that many men probably cook for their women on Valentines day, some might take care over their outfits, and if they know what’s good for them I’m sure they all stress about cards and chocolates. However, it seems to me that women still share a disproportionate burden of the Valentine’s menu’s ideological cunning. We are conditioned to expect certain things – flowers, a card, to be treated in some way – but what we actually give in return has become muddled with the idea that what we are giving is ourselves – and so we spend our money on pants, hair products, make-up and fancy outfits.

I can’t speak from a truly gender neutral position, seeing as how I’m a girl and all, but purely from the experience of the email newsletters I have received I cannot fathom that male recipients are targeted in the same ways as women; that the same emphasis is made of physical appearance and artificial fripperies that become essentials when in pursuit of the “perfect Valentines.” I’m pretty sure that no-one in the Ann Summer sales department is going to raise an eyebrow at Chem wearing the same pair of pants on February the 14th 2013 as he did this year, but if they get wind that I might trot out my bargain Peacocks ensemble for the third year in a row, I will surely be doomed to a life of perpetual loneliness, cat ownership and rejection.

Whilst I understand that Ann Summers are a business who are just trying to maximise their profits, and actually it was in no way compulsory for me to sign up for their newsletter in the first place, I actually prefer the generic love heart themed products and novelty decorations that resound in the Valentines displays of shops like Paperchase. This is because, in my eyes, part of the fun of Valentines is in celebrating Love itself as something to be cherished and, from time to time, reminded of. And the two people reminding each other of this love do not have to be lovers, but can be friends or family. For example, for about the last three years I have consistently posted my sister a Valentines card, and she posts one to me, regardless of the acquisition of any male admirers along the way. Admittedly, my Father has stopped buying me a Valentines bouquet of flowers now that Chem [after nearly two years of not very subtle hinting] has taken up his manly duties. But he did still send down some extra money with my sister when she came to visit on the 15th, in case I felt left out.

So to me, Valentines has never been that tremble-inducing reminder of inadequacy or loneliness, even before I found someone willing to buy me soppy cards and put up with the sometimes negligible results of my baking.  But then, I always resisted the notion that I needed a boyfriend to make me happy on all the other 364 days of the year, so this day was no real exception. Call me old fashioned, but I think the joy of Valentines is in celebrating the people who love you for who you are, whether they be lovers, friends, or family – and that is a sentiment both personal and universal.

Disappointingly, my own attempts this year to have my personal sentiments for my dear boyfriend immortalised in icing on the universal medium of a Thornton’s chocolate heart were cut short, when the saleslady refused to ice the message “You Smell” – apparently it was “too offensive.”

Jackie Collins: The Art of Fellatio?

8 Feb

Following my previous analysis of the “bad blowjob” motif in Jackie Collins’ Poor Little Bitch Girl, I want to round-off my excursion into the realms of fellatio with a brief discussion on the imagery associated with the text – namely its cover art. Now, through my dissertation research I’m aware that authors don’t always exercise as much control over creative decisions like cover-art as I’d assumed, and it is likely that an agency would have suggested and implemented the two designs I’m going to discuss. However, I don’t think this detracts from the point that someone made the aesthetic and commercial decision to re-design the cover.

According to this website, the cover-image I posted before [which was the cover I had seen on my copy of the book] is the UK version. This was released sometime after the US publication of the book. As you can see, the colour palette uses golden tones to pick up on the bronzed skin, hair and [presumably expensive] jewellery of the model. This reinforces the identification of the model with the “bitch girl” Annabelle Maestro, who is the “poor little” heiress of the story. Although the model is blonde and bronzed she wears little make up and has green eyes – this might be signalling a natural beauty, but also helps keep the colour scheme neutral to allow the red title to stand out. Although the model’s face is positioned to the left and is half-obscured, she is less anonymous than her American cousin through her visible eye and direct gaze.

The UK cover

On the original American cover, the model is paler in skin tone and hair-colour, and significantly lacks the identifying features of an eye – although her face is positioned centrally, and is not obscured by any text. These latter decisions draw a new focal point for the viewer’s gaze: the mouth.

The pink lipstick “O” of the lipstick, matched to the nail varnish and title font, reinforce the eye line along with the model’s pointing finger. Sitting on her pink nail is presumably a portion of caviar; this fulfils the functions of both indicating luxury and drawing attention, along with black font of Collins’ name, to the dark cavity of the open mouth.  The image of gold jewellery, central to the UK cover, is displaced to the left and is much smaller, in the form of a ring.

This image alone can be considered provocative, but when considered in conjunction with the text it sells, there seems to be an explicit reference to the frequent acts of fellatio. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising – after all we are in the realms of the “bonkbuster” here. Yet the promise of sexual gratification that the image evokes – both for Collins’ male characters and female readers – seems at odds with the story. This woman is sexually empowered: yet all but two of the blow jobs in the book place women in threatening or involuntary positions of subservience.

The US cover

The first exception is Zeena. She is a fairly minor character whose presence is really only to delay the main love plot between Denver and Bobby, and as I have written before, I find Collins’ portrayal of her sexuality ambiguous and difficult. I can’t see that she is the heroine whose sexual adventures readers’ are either intended to, or do, identify with most.

However the heroine, Denver, whose “good” blow job experience marks the novel’s happy-ever-after, cannot be the woman represented on the cover either, as she is clearly not the “bitch girl” who dines on caviar or is fabulously wealthy.

Assuming reasonably, then, that the cover-girl must be Annabelle, it becomes evident that the image portrays not the heiress Mz Maestro but “Belle Svetlana,” the hooker. Especially in the American version of the cover, the link between sexual service and payment [wealth] is made clear through the position of the caviar. However, this would seem to problematically glamourize Annabelle’s disastrous career as a prostitute, during which she is forced into “servicing” an abusive customer. Considering the way the cover evokes this “service” as an act of empowerment, it seems completely at odds [once again] with the message of the text.

The audio book cover

Based on the evidence of the text, I cannot understand why the first American cover was appropriate for the story it contained, but I can understand why it sold. The anonymous promise of empowered female sexual performance is appealing both in both message and aesthetic. Perhaps it reflects the notion that Collins’ characters are identikit Barbie dolls, essentially being dressed up in different character “outfits” as “Denver,” “Zeena,” or “Annabelle” on the surface, but remaining essentially the same underneath – shallow, anonymous, vessels for the entertainment and titillation of the reader. Somehow, I don’t think this was what Collins’ publishers were thinking…

An even more puzzling question is why did the cover change for UK publication? In my opinion, the first cover works, even if it doesn’t particularly relate to the story it tells. Its colour scheme is bolder and more eye-catching, and I also think it looks the newer of the two. Indeed my initial assumption had been that the US cover was for a subsequent edition or re-release of the first. Was it considered too racy for an English audience, too explicit? And why on earth would they make the English model comparatively more tanned?

If it wasn’t confusing enough already, two other covers for the novel appear to have been used during its publication. One is for the audio book version, which departs from the blonde model to feature a brunette – again the mouth is the focal point, but here the lips are closed, emphasising something less subtle than the act of tasting or swallowing. The final version is the most understated – a pink cover where text predominates, the only image that of a crystallised dollar sign. Here the sexual motif or emphasis is completely absent, with the tagline reading “Money. Murder. Betrayal.”

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and in this case, I really wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll just get confused.

"Money. Murder. Betrayal."

Jackie Collins: Bitch Girls and Blow Jobs

1 Feb

Poor Little Bitch Girl - Jackie Collins

I first became interested in reading Jackie Collins’ novels after encountering the author in an interview published in the Guardian weekend magazine, early last year. I was impressed by her feisty femininity and her unashamed glamour– here was a female literary icon that I was curious to know more about. Generally speaking “chick lit” isn’t my cup of tea [although I have read and enjoyed every single Shopaholic novel by Sophie Kinsella, oddly enough], but the following passage proved an irresistible advertisement:

It [Collins’ first novel, The World is Full of Married Men] was published in 1968 and promptly banned in Australia and South Africa. Barbara Cartland called it “filthy and disgusting”. It wasn’t just the sex but the premise of the book in which a man who leaves his wife for his mistress is sent packing when she says she isn’t interested in marriage. “Men were outraged by it, so it was number one within a couple of weeks. A politician, who was in the closet at the time, took out a half-page ad in the Sunday People and said, ‘This is the most disgusting book I have ever read.’ It was great.”

I knew her books were about sex. I knew this because when I had put them on my birthday wish-list, my Mother told me they were too rude for her to buy me. I thought this a bit odd at the time, as she had let me read her explicit Philippa Gregory novels for years, and to the best of my knowledge the books weren’t outright porn-fiction.Later on in the year I discovered several copies of Collins’ novels at the charity bookshop where I volunteer. Initially I intended to pilfer at least three books for myself, but a customer came in and spotted them. I asked her to recommend one I should keep to read, and she could have the rest. She surprised me by saying that she didn’t like the books at all herself – she wanted them for her daughter, who collected them. The one I ended up keeping was called Poor Little Bitch Girl, published in 2009, which the internet informs me was adapted from a screenplay that never made the cut.

For anyone who hasn’t come across the story before, it essentially follows three interconnected heroines performing the roles of the career-woman; a high-achieving love-interest with healthy attitudes to love and sex; the damsel in distress, a naïve mistress who must be rescued by the above; and the airhead heiress who gets herself into a scrape. The plot ticks over quickly, with Collins switching the narrative voice every few pages to keep you in a permanent state of suspense. One article in the Independent described the release of the book as yet another in Collins’ “own genre of Hollywood bonkbuster-cum-crime thriller.” This is essentially correct – the two driving plots concern a love affair [with lots of sex along the way] and the violent abduction with intent to cause an abortion, with the threat of rape, providing the narrative difficulty the two must overcome to live happily ever after.

I think the main problem I had with the novel was its shallowness. The Guardian article describes Collins’ work as a reaction against the types of female literature that the young author simply could or would not identify with – for example Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater. Having since read this book for myself, I identified much more with Mortimer’s exploration of love and sex through an insight into the consciousness of her heroine, even if I struggled to empathise with her decisions on occasion, than I did with the heroines of Collins’ novel. For me, they remained just patterns of words on a page, rather than living and breathing characters whose existence beyond the mere plot I could not believe and invest emotion in.

The character I struggled with most was Carolyn. The Independent described Collins’ heroines as “alpha females,” but Carolyn is the classic damsel in distress, who even in the epilogue to the novel is unable to use her narrative voice to speak out against the man who has betrayed her, had her kidnapped, and attempted to murder their unborn child. Carolyn tells us that Gregory’s punishment will be that he cannot see his child – yet the reader clearly knows he couldn’t care less about his offspring. In fact his real punishment is revealed when we see him stuck unhappily with his wife, unable to force Carolyn [who is in fact his secretary] into sexually satisfying him:

“He could do with a blow-job right now. His cock itched for the feel of Carolyn’s tight mouth, the way she held the shaft of his cock with her hands when he came, the way she never said no, and allowed him to come in her mouth.” (p. 307)

Gregory’s character provides one of the many examples in the book of Collins’ using the motif of fellatio to signify a “bad” sexual experience. When Carolyn tells Gregory she is pregnant he is already plotting how to get rid of her, but forces her to perform for him:

He felt angry, cornered and threatened, yet the conniving bitch could still give him a hard-on. Placing his hands on her breasts he began tweaking her nipples through her blouse. “Lock the door,” he muttered after a few moments, his voice suddenly thick with lust. “Then take off your top, get down on your knees and do that thing with your tongue you do so well. We’ll call it a celebration.” “Yes, Gregory, she murmured, thoroughly grateful that everything was going to be all right. “Whatever you want.” (p. 25)

The act is “bad” because the happy-ever-after ending Carolyn envisions is an unreality. She is physically and emotionally Gregory’s subordinate and dependent [reinforced by the fact the encounter takes place within the office where he is her boss] – he uses the sexual act to restore the power-balance which she has upset with her pregnancy.

Carolyn is later under threat of rape by Benito, the abductor Gregory has paid to “take care of her.” Whilst his sexual intentions are firmly “pussy” centered towards Caroline, whom he intends to take blindfolded and tied up, his attitude towards his girlfriend Rosa once again draws upon the motif to indicate the inbalance in their sexual relationship, as well as his “villainlike” nature in general:

Y’know,” he said with a sly smirk, “I got plenty wimmin chasin’ me. I can pick any puta I want, so’s ya better watch it.” “They gonna do you like I do?” Rosa said, standing up for herself. “It don’t take no degree t’suck me off,” he boasted, with a self-satisfied chuckle. “It be their pleasure.” (p. 275)

Like Carolyn, Annabelle Maestro’s character is subject to a “bad” blow-job experience when she misjudges the sexual power relations in her own workplace. She is introduced into the narrative as “Belle Svetlana,” a high-class prostitute and Madam who seeks pleasure in both her seductive power, and the money it earns her. However very quickly her security is shattered, as a client brutally reminds her that in his eyes she is no more than a “Hooker. Whore. Prostitute.

“Suck my dick,” Omar commanded, thrusting his penis toward her. “Suck it hard.” “Oh no,” she said firmly, struggling to get up from the couch. “This is not going to happen.” “That’s what you think!” he roared. And before she could get to her feet, he fell on top of her, jamming his penis into her mouth, at the same time ripping the front of her dress and exposing her breasts. She would’ve screamed if it was possible. But it wasn’t.” (p. 41)

Her voice and thus ability of self-definition are silenced, and she is forced to recourse to male help to restore herself – her unreliable boyfriend, who is currently in a lap dancing club.

A fourth example of the “bad” blowjob is provided by the hero Bobby, who assumes the feminine role when he is literally ambushed in the shower by the supposedly mysterious and seductive Zeena – a character I personally found unlikeable and unconvincing. She is older than Bobby and flaunts him as her “conquest,” criticising his performance and lack of sexual paraphernalia before triumphantly asserting her sexual mastery in the shower-scene.

She was the man. He was the woman.”
He was about to man-up, stop with the girlish infatuation and redeem his balls.”

This is the penultimate act of fellatio in the book, and through both its subversion of gender roles and the act itself [revealed to Bobby’s love interest, Denver] proves socially disruptive. Order is only restored when Bobby is serviced by Denver.  This time Collins writes fellatio as a loving act, with Denver emotionally and physically in control, in an equal relationship with Bobby. Collins even seems to harness the classic loss of virginity through Denver’s act, assuring readers that this is true love, unlike with Denver’s previous sexual partners in the narrative:

I felt him hard against my thigh, and I slid my hand down to feel him. Then I knew I had to taste him, make that intimate contact I didn’t do with just anyone – in fact, no one since Josh, because call me old-fashioned, but giving oral sex should be saved for someone special. And Bobby was special.

Whilst I cannot but admire the sheer quantity of sucking-off that Collins manages to pack into her novel, I find it problematic as a motif for empowered femininity when so many examples occur in “bad” scenarios, and mostly to women who experience loss of control, their happy endings mostly contrived. Carolyn, Zeena and Annabelle all encompass modes of femininity with important resonances for society – prostitution, sex-toys, toy-boys, rape, abortion, adultery – yet their stories seem trivialised by a narrative which failed to inspire in my any real anguish or anger on their behalves.

And finally, to me, the over-preponderance of blow jobs demonstrates the empowered heroine and author’s most inexplicable lack – cunnilingus.