Thursday, 23 October 2014

China Flash: Lean In Beijing on the new sexism, corporate ambition, marital choices and awesome girls in modern China

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing last month.

A Lean In Beijing meeting, image (c) Lean In Beijing
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about how she battled corporate sexism to rise to the top at Facebook, has struck a chord with young, ambitious women in China. “I saw Sandberg’s TED talk in March 2013,” says one of Lean In Beijing’s founding members, Allison Ye. “I was shocked because I had never seen a successful Chinese female leader talk with such openness and honesty about how exactly she got there. It was refreshing. Her message was that we can be responsible for our situation and we can control our lives. It was very positive.”

The talk triggered the formation of Lean in Beijing, which sent a survey [PDF]to more than 500 women, asking about their aspirations, their careers and the challenges they experienced in their lives. It revealed that 90% of respondents had never seen a professional women’s network – and wanted one. “We had 60 to 70 women at our first meeting, and every one had a story to tell. Things they wouldn’t tell to their own friends and families, they would tell to strangers,” says Ye. The Lean In message of female solidarity, boosted by speaker events, high social media connectivity, consciousness raising 'circles' and the open discussion of everyday sexism has proven so popular and necessary that Lean In has spread to several Chinese cities far beyond Beijing. Even within the capital, Lean In members have founded their own offshoots like the Lean In Thinktank led by Yolanda Wang and Maggie Zhang and the six Lean In College mentoring schemes founded by Alicia Lui. The mentoring scheme involves bringing in younger professional women to be mentors to college age students, Lui tells me. “Mentoring is a really great way to work through relationship, career and family pressures. At our last event in May, 150 students showed up and we had 15 mentors, all from different industries and with different interests. After the event, lots more professional women wanted to be a part of the network as mentors.”

We are meeting up at a time when gender inequality is back with a vengeance in China, with ancient stereotypes about femininity, double standards about gender roles, endemic and normalised violence against women, media misrepresentation and longstanding pressures on women meeting new corporate injustices around equal pay, property ownership, female leadership and opportunity, as chronicled in Leta Hong Fincher’s brilliant and vital book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

Lean In Beijing’s discussions aren’t just about strategising within a corporate context, combating institutional sexism, why prominent Chinese women business leaders stand at less than 5% or why women are paid less than men for the same job. “It’s [also about] the pressure of getting married young, the pressure that’s coming from all directions,” says Ye, “not just the family but the media, the government, society. Every young woman in a family is pressured to get married really young. The message behind it is that a woman cannot be happy by herself, she needs to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother in order to be fulfilled in her purpose in life.” Yolanda Wang agrees: “For a man in China, at the age of 30 you’re meant to have a career, a car, a job. For a woman, the main responsibility is to find someone, to get married. And the pressure on her [to do that] starts at the age of 22 or 23.”

Recently, the journalist (and friend of Lean In Beijing) Roseann Lake co-organised the Leftover Monologues – women’s monologues from all over the world, prompted by a combination of the Chinese women’s movement, Leta Hong Fincher’s work on gender inequality and activist Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was the first time many of the Chinese contributors had presented their own stories. “It’s really hard for Chinese people to speak out. They’ll be judged by society as a bad girl, judged by family and friends,” says Maggie Zhang. The Lean In movement in China is radical in itself, for its fostering of open dialogue. The conversation goes far beyond tips on how to negotiate for higher salaries, be less self-critical, manage career progression, handle confrontation or consider a company job versus entrepreneurship - although Lean In Beijing members have discussed all these and more. “The idea is not necessarily limited to work or career, or even family,” says Lui, “it’s more about a close knit, confidential community of women who listen to you, empathise with you and help you.” “Women at big companies are afraid to speak out at meetings,” says Wang, adding, “In the US women sit and talk about their [professional and life] dreams. In China people ask you, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? What does he do?’ Nobody thinks a woman has a dream.” “We asked women how they saw their purpose in life,” says Ye, “and lots of women told us that that was the first time they’d ever asked that question of themselves.”

“Our parents tell us not to get a boyfriend when we’re at college, so we can concentrate completely on our studies,” says Maggie Zhang, “but then, when we turn 25, they pressure us to get a husband.” “I was told, ‘You should never try to be too smart or you won’t find a boyfriend’ by my mother’s friend,” says Lui, “and I was pressured to marry from the age of 26. The family is still considered the centre of everything. I’ve heard, ‘You can’t get a PhD because no-one wants to marry a PhD.’” 

"The other side of the ‘leftover women' story is that we’re moving forward as never before,” says Ye. “Women don’t need a partner to sustain their lifestyles. It’s inevitable that women in China will have more freedom and that this will force change. The post-90s generation is already changing things, they’re really independent. They see that it’s important to have your own thoughts.” Lui chips in, “On one hand China has been one country that’s done the best in equalising everyone to some extent. People’s lives are getting better. But there are problems with the way it’s being done and the consequences. The Chinese haven’t got used to money yet. They want to show off, to show people what they've got. CEOs of companies are in their 20s and 30s. They start a company, they make money. The Chinese mentality-change is one of the fastest in the world, because of the way modern China has started itself up.” “The economy is changing very fast. But society changes slowly,” says Wang. Ye says, “My parents went through the hunger, when they didn’t have enough to eat. That’s why what they want for me is the best: comfort, a husband. When my generation has its kids, it’ll be different.”

While women are regarded as valuable only within the domestic sphere, where their labour can be exploited for free, domestic duties are regarded as demeaning for men to do. “If a man is a stay at home dad, people think he doesn’t have what it takes to go out into the world and support the family. It’s about saving face,” says Zhang. “In Chinese TV shows the man is always rich, tall, successful and the woman is obedient and subservient.”

“There are a lot of social barriers,” Ye agrees when I balk at the idea of individual women changing themselves in order to somehow evade, circumvent, win out against or contend with endemically antiwomen structures, judgements, customs, stereotypes and activities. “We can’t change the outside of society very fast but within our generation and the next we can change the policy-makers of the future. There’s only so much one person can do, but if everyone plays their part you can change a lot.” However, the barriers to equality and liberation are high. “You are discriminated against as a single woman,” says Ye. “Single women are barred from adoption. Sometimes a woman will choose her family over her career. Or she’ll choose her career. But women aren’t allowed to be both.” Yolanda Wang’s company asked one of her female colleagues to sign a piece of paper promising that she wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. “We never hear about men’s work-life balance, only women’s. And you’re judged badly whatever you choose,” she says. Maggie Zhang adds, “We have to educate not only women but also men, who are under huge pressure to be successful.”

Alicia Lui believes that Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring talk and book have “raised issues which enable us to have more open conversations about [sexism]. Lean In was a catalyst. It said to women, if you really feel you have a need for something you have to raise your hand and ask for it.”

Ye believes the movement is a chance for women to look at their lives afresh: “Before you change anyone’s life you have to change the way they see themselves. We have high rates of employment for women here, but sometimes women are happy with less demanding hours and less pay, because it means they still have time to do all their family duties. I believed all that too – until I was brave enough to say that that was not what I want. Once people see alternatives then they can begin to lean in and change their lives. We want to help women pursue their own definition of success, help them when they’re young and share stories of other women’s lives so they see themselves in these women.”

Lean In Beijing derives its momentum and power from its focus on co-operation between women. “Why do women judge each other?” says Allison Ye. “We don’t have that tradition of women helping women.” “We support each other to take the next step,” says Alicia Lui, “but starting something requires the other side to response. I argued with my mum [who put pressure on me to marry] and now she’s coming to understand my thinking. Each of us has a personal stake in Lean In Beijing because these issues affect us personally.”

Yolanda Wang says, “At my first Lean In Beijing meeting I realised I’m not on my own, I’m not crazy. Women are so honest, so encouraging, they push you to change things. For women it’s very hard to be their real self. Who they are now is who their family wants them to be, who society wants them to be. The cliché was that the only thing between girls was jealousy. But that’s not true. It’s so good to see girls who say to each other, ‘I like you because you’re awesome.’”

For a full list of my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.

Monday, 20 October 2014

WHY: What's happening for the young? A new festival at the Southbank, launching Thursday

Children and young people stand up for their rights at a new Southbank Centre festival, running from Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 October 2014

WHY? What’s Happening for the Young will take over the entire site for four packed days of talks, debates, performances, free participatory events and workshops exploring all aspects of the current protection and promotion of children and young people’s rights in the UK.

Programmed in consultation with over a hundred individuals, organisations and figureheads, WHY? brings together the voices of children and adults of different backgrounds and experiences to explore what it means to be a child today. The festival is an opportunity for policy makers, social workers, families, children of all ages and their schools to immerse themselves in fundamental questions about childhood today. Inspired by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the topics covered include politics, young people’s access to culture, immigration, career advice and sex education

  • A chance for children to make political banners and learn protest songs before taking to the Southbank Centre streets to participate in the BIG PROTEST for children’s rights (Thursday 23).
  • Events with leading policy-makers, figureheads, teachers and artists including: Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England; writer and Kids Company Director, Camila Batmanghelidjh CBE; classical musician and organiser of Channel 4’s ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ campaign, James Rhodes; Coronation Street star, Charlie Condou; actor and director, Femi Oyeniran who starred in Adulthood and Kidulthood and artist, banner-maker, Ed Hall. The voice of children and young people will be at the heart of WHY?,with many of the discussion panels including at least one child or young adult.
  • An interactive session led by UNICEF for adults and children to openly discuss and explore the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Friday 24).
  • Bryony Kimmings’ That Catherine Bennett Show – an interactive show for families challenging today’s role models for eight-year-old girls (Saturday 25 – Tuesday 28).
  • Pondling   a family comedy play with Best Actress (Dublin Fringe Festival 2013) Genevieve Hulme-Beaman about the confusing troubles of a growing little girl. (Friday 24 - Saturday 25).
  • Devoted and Disgruntled event focused on arts and sports in education (Saturday 25 & Sunday 26).
  • Hungry Childhoods – an exhibition of artwork by children and young people experiencing chronic hunger and food insecurity (a partnership by The Kids Company and Ella’s Kitchen.) 
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, said:
“All too often children and young people’s rights and creativity are sidelined so at WHY? What’s Happening for the Young? we seek to provide an open platform for urgent conversations about how the needs and ideas of children and young people can be properly included in the world. In this country we no longer take seriously the adage ‘children should be seen not heard’, and we don’t send youngsters up chimneys or down mines or into the mills or fields to earn their keep. With the number of toys, games and clothes aimed at the children’s market other societies might even accuse us of becoming too indulgent of children’s perceived tastes. However, we know from research that too many children don’t experience basic levels of happiness or a sense of belonging. They suffer from pressures at school, online and from notions of ‘fitting in’ that can cause real worry or sadness for them – and too many children still have to deal with violence and neglect inside the home. Once they reach teenage years they are often expected to behave like adults, but without enough support.”
Barbara Reeves, Partner in sponsor Mishcon de Reya's Family Practice, said: 
"This festival will provide a forum for children, young people and adults to debate, probe and question ideas around children’s rights and raise awareness, an issue that we feel extremely passionate about. Our objective is to put children – specifically their wishes, needs and wellbeing – at the forefront during parental disputes and separation. As a nation, we rarely consult children on issues that impact, shape and influence their lives. At Mishcon, we believe it's important to lead a national debate about this critical issue."
Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
“I don’t ‘campaign’ in my role as Children’s Commissioner for England but I have a legal duty to promote and protect children’s rights, so I am delighted that the Southbank Centre, one of the country’s best known arts centres, is championing children and young people’s rights.”

For further details click here.

All text and images (c) Southbank Centre

Saturday, 18 October 2014

China Flash: Film-maker Jenny Man Wu on contemporary Chinese women’s wit, pain and ambivalence

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing, where I am currently doing a stint as Deputy Editor.

Jenny Man Wu is a film-making powerhouse, describing her work as “soul led, not fantastical or abstract” and “inspired by a European arthouse sensibility in terms of the acceptance of the director as an auteur, rather than the Hollywood sensibility where a producer is the most important person and decides on the cast, the setting, the marketing and the distribution. It’s not important to me to make a million dollar movie. I want to continue to make low-budget movies where I have the right to do what I want, to show to and influence a certain small number of people. When I consider the price and sacrifice a director needs to pay to have a high budget cinema-style movie, I can say no to that. And if you’re making movies that you want to be screened in China you have to submit to censorship from the government.”

Over the course of four punchy short films, Man Wu has garnered international attention within just a few years of graduating from her studies in screenwriting and literature at Beijing Film Academy. Some Sort of Loneliness, A Choice (Maybe Not), Crime Scene and Last Words, all produced between 2012 and 2013, feature women in the throes of tragicomic contemporary despair. “It all starts with very little things, small daily situations,” says Man Wu. “Then I start to describe them, to look at them from a different angle.” In A Choice (Maybe Not), two young women are in a coffee shop, “and one of the girls is a little bit OCD about the choices she makes. She doesn’t want coffee. She doesn’t want lemonade. The beer is overpriced. The wine’s been open for two days. It's a comedy but it’s really about the pressure on women to choose. Women in the olden days almost never walked out of the house alone – and now we have all these choices, it seems. But there are so many choices it's hard to tell if you've made the right one or not. And sometimes when you're forced to make a big decision it's easy to put it down to fate, to the inevitable or the subconscious.”

Last Words, a monologue which Man Wu acted in herself, examines the notion of choice in a far darker way. “It’s a stream of consciousness, a woman talking about suicide and presenting her last words. She’s thinking about something [abusive] that happened in her childhood. The core of the film is not about how she develops her obsession with suicide but her recent experience of domestic violence, her struggle with her parents and the restraint she’s experienced from her father. It’s about how a female wants to have a different kind of life, about her struggle against patriarchy and disappointment and her desperation about her future. She feels that suicide is the only thing that she can do because she’s a perfectionist and an idealist – and these beliefs make her suffer all the more. At the end, she looks into the camera and asks, If I kill myself, does it mean I’ve surrendered to the world?”

Man Wu is committed to focusing on the issue of gender in China. “I have a political view about gender in general and that comes through in my work. Gender issues are political issues. I have a responsibility: I understand how it is overseas and how it is in Beijing and feel I must connect the two, to show that women could be living in so many different ways. We had a women’s revolution in China in the 1920s but all this did was release free female labour into the market.” In giving voice to the ambivalence, pain and wit of her women characters, Man Wu points out that she is going against society’s assumption that “women’s feelings and emotions are small and not political.”

When it comes to gender, Man Wu “can’t say it’s going backwards. It’s very complicated, how [society] sees single women. It’s related to capital and economics. It’s also that under the one child policy, girls do feel cherished within their family, they are insulated and protected from the frustrations of gender inequality at a personal level, so many don’t understand why they should fight for their rights. But it’s important to recognise that a lot of the problems in daily life are actually related to gender. For example I know of a young woman at school who wasn’t a virgin. But she was with a new boyfriend and to pretend to be a virgin, she put some [red] colour in herself – and the colour wouldn’t wash off the guy! And this was presented as a big joke by the guy’s friends. But there’s a double standard: girls really are expected to be virgins.”

Man Wu was selected to show at the 2013 Beijing Independent Film Festival, has just got back from the high profile Elles Tournent Film Festival in Brussels and is currently directing the Beijing Queer Film Festival, which will be running at various venues across town until December. However, both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Queer Film festival have both been shut down by the authorities on their launch dates in the past. One typically clever strategy for circumventing this possibility has been to screen films on special buses driving around the city; yet another example of the ingenuity which has developed in China as a response to the caprices and controls of those in power.

“I can’t leave Beijing,” vows Man Wu. “A lot of things are happening here. I see the changes and they’re not always good. It’s sad to see old buildings being demolished, places becoming more commercial. It’s always good and bad – but that’s what makes the world interesting. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below:

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

China Flash: Benedicte Bro-Cassard, Beijing fashion photographer, on the Chinese luxury market, sugar daddies and sugar daughters

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

Archive: Marpessa by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

Bénédicte Bro-Cassard is fashion. Occasionally going by the pseudonym Gabrielle Bonheur (an in-joke for fashionisti - Gabrielle Bonheur was Coco Chanel’s formal name), Bro-Cassard is the brains and eye behind the style site Fearless In Beijing. Fearless combines stingingly hip street shots of the highly styled, label-toting girls of Sanlitun with fresh profiles of new designers and sharp commentary on modern China and modern fashion, boosted by all the wisdom gleaned from her thirty year fashion history in New York, London and Paris. Fearless In Beijing currently features in Le Monde, Vogue China, Louis Vuitton’s City Guide and mega Chinese tech site Sina.

The roaring 1980s, Alaia and his 'best girls'
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Whether it’s scouting beautiful girls on the Chinese capital’s streets, covering the kitsch wedding photography industry, hunting down hilarious fakes or finding forgotten rolls of classic supermodel shots in her basement, discovery is the name of Bro-Cassard’s game. Beijing is soon to enjoy two exhibitions of around fifty of Bro-Cassard’s photographs both from her current Beijing adventures and her 1980s student days at Parisian fashion school Studio Bercot, when she hung out at the ateliers of Alaia, Montana and Dior, shooting the designers and models clowning, preening, draping and creating. I ask why Bro-Cassard almost never features herself in these images and she’s adamant: “I have four hundred pictures from my early days and there’s only one shot of me. It’s with a camera in front of my face, in a refection in a make-up table, when I was shooting one of the girls. I’d have my picture taken with my friends who were supermodels, they’d look at it and marvel, ‘Wow. You reject the light.’”

The images are notable for their classiness, the womanliness of the models and the sense of maturity, camaraderie and sleek but unexploited hedonism they exude. Some of the prints have been eroded and nibbled in at the edges by time, but the women are as chic as ever. As Bro-Cassard tells me, “Back then the cabine [the stable of models] was incredibly diverse and not so white on white as it is now, and the 'girls' were aged 17 – or 16 in the case of Stephanie Seymour – up to 34 and older, like Mounia, Janice [Dickinson] or Alva [Chinn], even pushing 40 like [Farah] Zulaikha – and 40 was pushing back hard. I have pictures of Grace Jones and Azzedine Alaia and the supermodels of 1985 playing around backstage. It was truly different then.”

Archive: Katoucha by
Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
From those early days in Paris, Bro-Cassard moved to New York where she spent fifteen years as a fashion manager, stylist and sales executive for the likes of Romeo Gigli, Fendi and Anna Molinari, “Back in the days before Sex and the City became a documentary and no longer something to laugh at for entertainment.” Next came a move to London, where Bro-Cassard was in charge of international buyers for London Fashion Week. Among her clients were commercialism-savvy design wunderkind Christopher Kane and the crisp, clever Boudicca. A move back to Paris saw her working as a fashion consultant for the Brazilian government, working with them to develop their fashion industry.

A change in family circumstances saw her coming to Beijing a few years ago, after a very brief stopover in Geneva, “where fashion goes to die.” In China, Bro-Cassard has witnessed a country in the middle of extreme and rapid transformation: malls springing up on every corner, the breakneck development and expansion of major cities, prestigious French and Italian brands unveiling glossy new boutiques and advertising campaigns, the high taxes on luxury items hardly deterring a young and newly rich populace hungry for everything their parents never had. Bro-Cassard was immediately captivated: “I spent a year studying the streets, going everywhere that there’s a market selling clothes, to find out what the Chinese wear, what makes them tick. And I just fell in love with these girls, because they were so cool. I began documenting the girls and the fashion habits of the young Chinese. They’re free. It’s not even like the Swinging Sixties here. It’s the Roaring Twenties, where money can be made overnight. They party, they have fun, there’s a curiosity. They’re fearless – that’s why I named my site after them.”

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Bro-Cassard tells me that her appreciation of these young women is genuine. They are not the empty, uncreative consumers they are represented as in the international media. “The gorgeous thing is that they’re never vulgar, never cheap. The [pejorative] fantasy of these young Chinese women is that they are logo hungry, stupid rich girls. But I think they’re more fun, more clever than that. They take more risks. Then I go back to Paris and everyone’s dressed in black.”

Despite Bro-Cassard's positivity, I’m disturbed by some of the young women I see in Sanlitun. While some are the cool, creative, independent type that can be found in any major city in the world, others are dolls - which I Freudianly mistyped there as 'fools'. They are in designer labels, perfectly coiffed, photo-ready, made up, silent, styled and accessorised, just walking slowly from one end of the Taikoo Li shopping ‘village’ (trans: huge black futuristic mall) to the other. They don’t sweat, even in the roasting 100-degree summer heat. Apparently they have nothing to do, no studies, no work, no projects. They don't talk or laugh with their friends. They mill about, gorgeous and passive, waiting to be noticed, photographed or picked up - and when Bro-Cassard and I stop them to ask for photographs, they offer themselves up as passive objects to be snapped, without a single word. They don’t ask us what blog it is, who’s running it, who’ll be reading it. They don’t tell us anything about themselves as people, nor do they ask questions of us as people, nor do they crack jokes. They’re not confident, they’re not coy, they don’t simper, they don’t frown, they don’t laugh, they down clown around. They simply pose, like hollow plastic mannequins, inert and endlessly compliant. When we ask one girl to pretend to be texting, because we want to get a shot of her iPhone case – Moschino, rubber, styled to looked like a packet of McDonald’s fries, available in the shops maybe only last week – she does, without a word, putting her thumbs to the blank screen and pretending to concentrate. When we say thank you the girls drift away, down the escalators.

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
Where did these girls get their money from? Why are they copying their looks wholesale from fashion magazine spreads? What do they do all day? Beijing is the first place I’ve seen teenagers walking on the street wearing real Chanel from head to toe. Who are these girls waiting for, going to or coming home from? “Their daddy, or their boyfriends, or their sugar-daddies,” says Bro-Cassard. We stop another young woman, striding in spindly gold high heels and a long printed chiffon dress, clearly in a rush. “Er – she was late for a date. That she was being paid for,” says Bro-Cassard after quickly snapping a shot.

She tells me not to judge: “Years ago, nobody had food. Twenty years ago, nobody had money. They’ve had famine, purge, cultural revolution, which is the earth opening up and everyone falling into hell. So there is no concept of nouveau riche. Nobody ever had money. I’ve been to the countryside in China, it’s fucking poor. It’s real, it’s a favela. I went to our ayi’s [maid’s] house, it was 2 rooms, no kitchen, no bathroom, far out of the city beyond the ring road, but it has pictures, it as a light. [Internal] migrant workers are even worse off, they’re like the untouchables in India. In summer they sleep in the streets. In winter they sleep in parking lots. But because it’s China, it’s all behind closed doors. I once wandered into the back corridor of a shopping mall and there were people living there, ayis were sitting knitting.”

“Whatever money you have, you know that little brass ring is gonna burn your finger sooner or later, so enjoy it while you can. Of 1.4 billion people, only a tiny amount will make it. Because they are so scared, they know they can lose it at any moment. So these girls live to spend. And they have no religion, although the government is beginning to address that: how do you give values to a society that has no value except money? As far as these girls are concerned, they’ve made it.” Bro-Cassard reminds me, “This is the first generation that gets to dress how they please. They are expressing themselves with their clothes. Their mothers were raised by their grandmothers, who looked like their grandfathers.”

Image from Fearless In Beijing
by Bénédicte Bro-Cassard
"One thing I’ve realised, living here," she says, “is that if someone seems rich, he’s even ten times richer than you think. Imagine, you’re a young woman, your father was just a farmer. He sold his land for a factory to be built on it, now he’s worth so much.”

Despite this sudden spike in wealth creation, I balk at the gender politics and power structures of the newly moneyed world and the way it has warped girls’ and women’s lives and led to such demeaning survival strategies. “Men have the power here,” states Bro-Cassard. “Girls hang out looking for sugar daddies. This is the second-largest market for plastic surgery in the world, after Brazil. Their mentality is that they need somebody to pay for their life. If you’ve come from poverty and suddenly your boyfriend or father gives you a credit card with no limit, you burn through it.”

China Flash: Kong Lingnan, Beijing painter, on natural beauty and human ugliness

This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

O Brambles, O Brambles, by Kong Lingnan (2012)
Indulgence is hardly what one would associate with the prolific, rigorous artist Kong Lingnan, who lives and works in a chic warehouse space in the 318 International Art Village, a Beijing zone so cutting edge and (literally) far out that it’s still being constructed by hard-hatted, belly-baring builders. Kong’s visually stunning large-scale paintings replicate the eerie, sexy effect of neon tubing. “I was trying [unsuccessfully] to draw portraits, until one day I saw a neon light in front of my window, glowing in the darkness, spelling out the Chinese character for ‘spoil’ or ‘indulge’, and it struck me as funny.”

Unnatural, electric neon proved to be Kong’s natural language, the one she uses “to describe the world.” That world contains equal parts terror and beauty. Her style has developed from epic landscapes in which tiny humans are caught up in scenes of male violence (particularly male sexual violence against women), natural disasters and accidental devastation to globular, seemingly abstract images where a bird’s-eye view of islands resembles amorphous biological cells. “I don’t want to be narrative at all. I want to describe a state,” she explains.

Over the last five years Kong’s work has made her an art market must-have, a favourite face in Vogue magazine (when photographer Peter Lindbergh recommended her to Vogue China’s Editor in Chief Angelica Cheung following a group art show with Kong), a collaborator with the Chinese fashion label JBNY and the headliner of a solo exhibition, Beach, at Beijing’s Gallery Yang in the 798 Art District, which ends on 10th October.

When I point out the sinister elements of her work and the conflict they portray between nature and the human world, Kong agrees: “I am very sceptical about all the things we’ve built. Our culture, our moral standards, our religions. We’re building, building, building – and coexisting with nature. A human is just a tiny creature. We can be strong, but also very fragile.”

To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below:

Monday, 6 October 2014

Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean To Be Gay Today? by Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel puts abusive men in prison. Widely known as a rigorous writer and broadcaster in the mainstream media, Bindel’s journalistic career actually grew out of her work as a lifelong campaigner against male violence, work which includes co-founding the law reform organisation Justice For Women. She has written and spoken on a vast range of issues including sex trafficking, the grooming of vulnerable girls, the sex exploitation industry, the duping and usage of women environmental activists by undercover UK police officers, low rape conviction rates, sexual exploitation in Syrian refugee camps, the treatment of women victims in the criminal justice system and lenient sentencing for men found guilty of abusing women. Most recently she has written about new legislation regarding the impact of emotional abuse within UK domestic violence law.

While Bindel often critiques institutions’ responses to (or, more often, collusion in and protection of) male mistreatment and exploitation of women, her writing is also a corollary of direct, on-the-ground research into perpetrators’ activities which she sometimes conducts in collaboration with international law enforcement authorities, NGOs, governments, lawyers and other bodies working to collect enough evidence to bring perpetrators to justice. She is not just opining on gender from the cosiness of her study; she has seen the whites of abusers’ eyes, heard their lies and self-justifications, listened to the testimonies of their victims and withstood the threats that come whenever she, or any other woman, writes about such issues. Her work is all the more vital at a time when the Yewtree investigations into ‘historic’ sexual abuse by lifelong perpetrators is gaining convictions (of Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall and Max Clifford) but laughably lenient sentences, reassuring abusive men everywhere that the longer you abuse for, the more male power, fame and connections you are given by other men and the more victims there are, the less you will punished even if you are convicted.

Appearing well into her career, Bindel’s first book, Straight Expectations: WhatDoes It Mean To Be Gay Today?, returns to the heart of her personal and political roots: the lesbian and gay liberation movement, feminism, lesbian politics, anti-gay bigotry and women’s and men’s emancipation from patriarchal machismo. In the mainstream media it has been billed, and predictably caused controversy, as a report revealing that sexuality can be chosen and a polemic about how people should all decide to go gay.

Straight Expectations is neither of those things. It does not urge readers to act one way or another, nor is every line of inquiry set up to prove or disprove a point. Rather, it’s a delicate, nuanced, well researched and multi-layered reconsideration of the history of various social justice movements, a survey of certain commercial and sociological developments related to contemporary life as a lesbian or a gay man and an open-ended analysis of the possible goals of a revived gay politics.

The book represents a new approach to these issues and reveals a new dimension to the author. Readers expecting the vigour, zeal and urgent momentum of Bindel’s newspaper articles will be surprised by the tone of Straight Expectations, which is thoughtful, equivocal and accepting of the diverse viewpoints of Bindel’s interviewees and research respondents. While underscored by the heat which make her journalism so essential a measured, subtle voice works well in this book.

Straight Expectations covers a lot of ground. Despite its understatement it mounts wholly new critiques of numerous developments, from gay marriage to corporations’ recognition of the ‘pink pound’ (perceived significant disposable income held by lesbians and gay men), which have been touted as signs of increasing emancipation and social acceptability but might actually be manifestations of corporate exploitation, mercenary capitalist encroachment and even conservative political complacency on the part of lesbians and gay men. It is refreshing when such developments, which have so often been glossed with unquestioning indulgence by liberal writers, are examined through a truly red lens.

The first and easiest assumption to topple is that being a lesbian or a gay man has become socially acceptable. Bindel’s research, conducted via two surveys which constitute the largest study of their kind, turns up countless personal examples of girls, women, boys and men who have been bullied at school and work, encountered physical violence and extreme verbal assault by strangers and experienced extreme hostility or ostracism from their families as a result of their orientation. While Bindel and her study respondents acknowledge that at the level of political rhetoric, anti-discrimination legislation and media representation (taken in the shallowest terms: lesbian and gay presenters, characters in sitcoms) there has been some progress, she provides plenty of examples of obvious anti-gay bigotry in politics, the media and everyday life to counter the assumption that growing up gay today is no different from growing up straight and presents no particular obstacles.

Bindel is careful to acknowledge that if one takes a global view, the treatment of homosexuals is even more dire and expressed not only through punitive laws, prevention from parenting, non-recognition of long term relationships, extreme stigma, discrimination and ostracism but also through horrific human rights violations like torture, attack and ‘corrective rape’. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes of Straight Expectations is that no self-identified freedom movement can operate solely within the bounds of a nation-state – particularly one with a history of supremacist colonial exploitation of other nations. To use one of her examples, gay couples who are campaigning for the right to have children via surrogacy are hardly on the side of dignity and equality if they have no qualms about renting and using the womb of a much poorer, developing world woman, when the UK is full of children needing adoption. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in the UK and numerous other Western European countries because it is considered unethical and beneath a woman’s dignity and humanity to be rented, used, paid off and discarded. But it is not considered inhumane for a woman from the developing world to be used like that by foreigners, gay and straight. She quotes appalling racist, sexist and ignorant opinions from the gay male parents she interviews, who bill themselves as freedom fighters (and commercial for-profit service providers) on behalf of gay families who want children.

Bindel’s nose for hypocrisy and self-righteous selfishness – sold as defiant self-determinism or gay rights  – is what enables the book to go so deep despite being a quick, clear read. She demonstrates that simply being gay does not mean that you are not misogynistic, racist, colonially arrogant and classist; that you do not exploit others; that you like and respect women; that you reject gender stereotypes; that you are not patriarchal, conservative and in all other ways corroborative of the status quo, despite your orientation. She also resists the idea that lesbians and gay men should always be lumped in together as if forming a single group with shared personal and political interests, quoting several interviewees who say, depressingly, that some of the gay men they know loathe women just as much as straight men do.

In the book’s deeper central layers Bindel shows that, when seen from a politicised, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-macho position, many of the advancements of this apparently more enlightened era are actually deeply retrogressive and problematic. She looks into gay marriage, gay conversion therapy, historic gay liberation movements, scientific studies into a possible gay gene, lesbian visibility and the intersection of misogyny, ageism and anti-lesbian bigotry, the commercial exploitation of gay identity and much more.

I won’t rehash every line and argument, except to say that Bindel yearns for a return to a politicised movement in which feminism and anti-patriarchal, anti-gendered challenges to the status quo are completely fused and women are equal agitators rather than a tolerated minority. Bindel charts the permutations of various gay liberation movements, showing how effective politicisation, unity and mobilisation have been – most obviously when it came to raising awareness and urging for funding and research into AIDS. She deconstructs the nebulous notion of ‘gay pride’, a lifestyle concept which has been leached of its political content and can easily be taken advantage of – or sponsored – by companies and brands wanting to show (or claim) that they are diverse and egalitarian when their own staff demographics and workplace practices demonstrate otherwise.

Bindel is cynical – and often very funny – when it comes to the latest step forward for gay rights, gay marriage. She does not understand why anyone, gay or straight, would want to get married. The feminist argument is that marriage is oppressive in itself because it delimits and demeans women; reinforces rigid and stereotyped gender roles; exploits and erases female cleaning, cooking, household management and childcare labour while simultaneously fetishising it; gives primacy to unions which are somehow approved by an all-powerful state; prizes the appearance of stability over a reality of inequality; recommends monogamous coupledom as the only route to lasting happiness; presents itself as the only safe space for the raising of children despite this being untrue; and places the nuclear family structure above all other types of kin group. There is also the inconvenient general fact that the married nuclear family experiment has not worked for straight people because marriage does not work.

Bindel traces several paradoxes when it comes to gay marriage, such as its support by Cameron’s ultra-conservative government, and her explanations are subtle and illuminating. Gay marriage has provided an opportunity for a ravenously capitalistic but socially conservative society to make more money while pacifying the renegade elements of its populace. The wedding industry has expanded to include gay weddings and now makes money selling floral concepts, feminine dresses, masculine suits, tacky accessories, salmon-or-beef catering packages, getaways to country houses for the ceremony and other options which are just as cheesy as those chosen for straight people’s weddings. All of this has (Bindel’s argument goes) shrunk down the indefinable and radical difference of homosexuality into something tame and easily placed, as though lesbian and gay men are exactly like straight people, want to mimic and follow them and be husbands and wives settled in families, just like them, where there is one feminine partner and one masculine partner – so that gendered differences are preserved, regardless of sex, and enshrined in an ancient and deeply conservative social institution. As Bindel writes towards the end of Straight Expectations, “In mainstream gay couples, the [traditional] gender roles are emulated, not rejected. In mainstream straight couples, the gender roles are still treated as the status quo. Gay culture used to challenge this.”

There are plenty of people who disagree with Bindel – the writers Paul Burston and Stella Duffy included – and she gives them fair space in the book. She does not undermine their views by hinting that she is secretly correct and they are misguided. This style enables readers to come to their own conclusions, while leaving no doubt about where Bindel’s heart really lies. One of the driving forces of Straight Expectations, despite its even-handed approach, is actually something rather romantic: a yearning for gayness to be truly free and truly other, proudly going against the mainstream, liberated from stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, politically risky and sociologically dangerous, exempt from the limiting focus on home and hearth, a radical challenge to tradition and limitation and a positive, heartfelt, happy embrace of rebellious difference with no shame, no constraints and no excuses.

It is through this line of argument that Bindel interrogates the idea of there being a gay gene. So far, there is no scientific proof that a gay gene exists, just as there is no brain scan or blood test that can demonstrate the existence of any “complex trait”, to quote interviewee Adam Rutherford, who says the nonexistence of a gay gene is “unequivocal”. On this issue, seemingly the crux of the book but actually its least interesting point, Bindel has fine reasoning skills. What she says is hardly controversial:
It is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives…. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice. 
The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument… can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless… 
The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight. 
Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual.

Bindel takes a different, playful view: “the possibility that being gay is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality that it is good enough for some of us to choose it.” She points out that all of the antecedents of the current scientific search for a gay gene originated from those, like the Nazis, who wanted to identify the gene in order to eradicate gay people, not to prove that homosexuality is natural and real and therefore to be respected, accepted and taken seriously. Bindel is extremely serious when tackling the fraudulent practises of “conversion therapists” who promise troubled gay men and lesbians that they can somehow unlearn, throw over, pray away or teach themselves to reject their sexuality in order to be in socially acceptable alignment with their faith, family or society. She goes undercover to find out about their methods. Her investigations uncover countless faux therapists who are at best “troubled souls” with massive sexual identity problems of their own, and at worst bigots and bullies trying to cleanse their ‘patients’ of qualities they regard as dirty, sinful or unnatural.

Elsewhere, she uncovers some cringe-makingly bad science, usually hidebound by gender stereotypes, such as the professor who believes homosexuality can be predicted in children by looking at “sissy” boys and “tomboy” girls and the PhD student developing facial recognition methodologies to explain “gaydar”. These sorties leave Bindel wondering what a truly feminist gay movement would be like, one freed from stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, in which gay men reject womanhatred and boys’ club behaviour and unite with women in fighting the “double whammy of sexism and homophobia” which lesbians face. Her gay politics would be global and just as interested in what is happening in Putin’s Russia or in Sierra Leone, India or the Gulf states as the UK marriage market.

She has mixed feelings about campaigns for greater acceptability for homosexuals in notoriously macho, misogynist hierarchies like the police and the army, in which the abuse of and discrimination against women is endemic, both for employees within these institutions and victims of endemic male violence who are going to them for help. She would rather these institutions were exposed and reformed from the ground up than that they simply accepted gay men and lesbians who would themselves conform to fit an overall abusive culture.

Straight Expectation shows that patriarchy undercuts everything including homosexuality with its misogyny, its financial greed, its arrogant celebration of machismo, its abuse and exploitation of women, its blindness to or overt relish of this abuse and its rigid gender roles. It is not just a sensitive history and a call for ethical integrity and revived rebellion, it’s also a survey of things as they stand now and a dismayed account of sociological changes that have seen lesbians and gay men move from radicalism to narcissism, from resistance to consumerism, challenge to assimilation, the pain of political struggle to the cosiness of a quiet existence, firebrand feminist politics to a generalised and corporate-branded gay pride in which lesbian women are marginalised or mocked.

There is a final point to be made about Bindel as a writer and it’s a question of style, not content. She is hilarious, with an earthy, blunt, universal humour that makes me think of Sue Townsend, Jo Brand, Victoria Wood or dare I say it Pam Ayres, as when railing at “lesbians and gay men who believe they can be ‘just like [straight people]’ by getting married, having kids and having a weekly row in Ikea.” At the heart of Bindel’s writing – and providing the key to her warmth – is the stroppy, passionate teenager she used to be, who was and still is appalled not just by the limitations of heterosexual life for women in a patriarchy or men’s compulsive and ubiquitous abuse of women but also by smug marrieds generally, boring suburban straights (or, worse, straight-acting gays whose sexual identity reaches its apotheosis in the joint purchase of a peddle-dashed semi in Stoke), provincial discos, cosy and coy country living and generally anything that isn’t bolshie, challenging, defiant and possibly leading to patriarchy-smashing argy-bargy. Straight Expectations occasionally gives glimpses of Bindel’s formative years and they are beautifully written, sensitive, vivid, funny and soulful – quite different from any of her other writing.

I hope Julie Bindel will not think I’m privileging the solipsistic over the political, the personalised over the collective, when I suggest that in addition to her campaigning and journalistic work one future book of hers could be a brilliant, hilarious memoir. In the meantime, Straight Expectations is an essential read.