Archive | February, 2012

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.