The Urge to Scribble

April 20, 2008

L’art pour l’art

A few months ago there was a mini-debate in the papers about whether or not Juno was an anti-abortion film. Along with considering whether or not this was the case it got me thinking about what we expect from our entertainment. As a feminist, or indeed, whatever identity I chose, should I worry about whether the entertainment I watch reflects my political viewpoints? Might I not reject good art for political purposes? Or am I betraying myself not to question the assumptions and the viewpoints of the work that crosses my path.

In the case of Juno I found the arguments around it interesting. Juno is a film about a 16 year-old who gets pregnant. She decides to have the baby and give it away for adoption. For such a serious subject it is a surprisingly funny film. When the story begins Juno assumes she is going to have an abortion but changes her mind while in the clinic waiting room. In presenting abortion as not only the natural choice but one that is not condemned the film can not be seen to be anti-abortion. Yes, Juno rejects having an abortion for herself but the abortion option is not condemned. Juno is taking the ‘pro-choice’ movement at their word. The choice is available and that is never questioned or presented in a negative light. There is also the pro-life protester outside the clinic –  one of the most ridiculous characters in a film of ridiculous characters. A pro-life movie would hardly choose her as the only advocate of their cause. Juno is a film that sees the ridiculous in everything. It is also a film about teenage pregnancy – the only way it could have been more pro-choice would have been for Juno to have the abortion at the beginning and then where would the plot of the film have been?

So Juno could be seen to demonstrate the limits of art and entertainment as an expression of political viewpoints. Plot, characters and setting can all mitigate against us seeing the story that we might like to see, that politically we want to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is bad or that those involved have betrayed any political principles, it means the film makers, writers or performers were more interested in their art than our ideas. I might not always agree with that approach but I can understand it.

In the past I have been made very angry or very uncomfortable by films. It is the ones that are lazy about political issues or that seem to promise you something more than just a piece of fluff that have left me with that feeling. Knocked Up left me feeling very uncomfortable. Unlike Juno, here was a film about accidental pregnancy that was unwilling to engage with abortion at all. The character, of course, had to reject abortion for the plot to progress, but this was done with little skill. Indeed, the rest of the plot had little skill. It was never made clear why this smart, intelligent woman would stick around with a lazy pothead. She was shown falling for his easy charm once they spent some time together but why did she choose to spend anytime with him in the first place? And why did she seem convinced that she needed to be in a couple for her child? Why did she need a man to look after her, especially one so unable to take of himself? Knocked Up was not meant as a political film. But it was a lazy film. The men who wrote it have not considered how uncomfortable and insulting it could be from a woman’s point of view. Even the star, Katherine Heigl, has called it “sexist”. The men are childish and loveable, the women are demanding and unreasonable. Its social assumptions are ultimately very different from those of Juno where the character is allowed to cut her own path. Although it was not intended to be addressing any issues, by not intelligently engaging with its own characters it can never be anything more than very superficial fluff.

However, my ire for Knocked Up was nothing compared with my reaction to Mona Lisa Smile a few years ago. Here was a film which was presented as the feminist Dead Poet’s Society but instead turned out to be something of a damp squid.  The wiki entry on the film paints the feminist picture for it very well but what I remember is the general rejection by most of the girls of their teacher’s ideas and the opportunities that she was opening up to them. And the very strong sense from the film that the teacher was more wrong than right in the way she pushed her opinions. My disappointment in the film was based in the fact that it had tried to claim the ground of a girl’s movie promoting women and inspiring women. If this was as far as they thought women could get then I was not very impressed. If they had not tried to stake the feminist territory for themselves I probably would not have reacted as badly as I did.

My friends criticised me for wanting Mona Lisa Smile to be a polemic for feminism. They argued that it was more honest to have a variety of reactions to new ideas, to have some girls rejecting and some embracing the main character’s teaching. My complaint was with the number of girls who rejected what she said. If it was really so inspirational, why did so many who could have been liberated by what she said turn away from it? Even if it was only an attempt to show balance on the part of the film-makers it certainly undermined any positive message that I could have taken from the film.

When criticising art and entertainment from a political viewpoint one has to be careful. We can’t expect art to stick to our party line, whatever that may be. But we can hold it to its promises, which Mona Lisa Smile could be said to have let down. We can equally expect it to engage intelligently with the world around it. If it does not then we can as well criticise it for the poverty of its ambition as the failure of its morals. It must be disheartening for people who have worked hard for months and years on pieces of work to have them hijacked by commentators or activists for this cause or that. But at least it shows we recognise the importance of their work. It cannot exist in a bubble, it has to feed back into the world that inspired it. In taking political or personal issue with a piece of work we show that we recognise art’s importance to shape the way we think and feel about the world around us. At its furthest extent, we could argue that when someone is having their work torn to shreds or twisted beyond recognition, they should just be happy that we think it is worth doing. If we only engaged with our entertainment on a superficial level we would betray both the effort that has gone into its creation and our own intelligence as thinking, feeling human beings. Art is not just for art’s sake, it is for all our sakes.


March 31, 2008

C’est la vie

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At the end of last week all the press could talk about was Carla Bruni. The media seemed to suffer a collective swoon over her. They could not get over how immaculately she dressed or how incredibly photogenic she was. She was stylish in flats, her curtsy was well-practiced, the Duke of Edinburgh was charmed.

Now, while its nice that a woman was getting all the attention, its a shame that it was all about her appearance. No one can really suggest that the hoohah was about anything else, she was after all being the perfect consort, pretty and mute. I could suggest that she is a genius in upstaging her powerful, attention-seeking husband simply by dressing modestly and batting her eyelashes. But I am not really in the mood. She played the role of the perfect wife and is reaping the congratulations for it. She did her bit by looking pretty and let the men get on with the important bits, running affairs of state and such like.

It could all have been so different. 

Last summer Segleone Royal lost the presidential election to Nicholas Sarkozy. Imagine if she had won and last week we had had Madame la Presidente on her first state visit. What would the press have done to keep themselves occupied then? I would like to think that they would have actually managed a serious discussion of her policies. However, given the general focus on a femail politician’s appearance over their performance I imagine that Royal would have got much the same treatment as Bruni, only much less sympathetic. She would, after all, be opening her mouth and playing politics which isn’t what the media really like their women to be doing. And not being an ex-supermodel she would not be quite so effective at making Bambi eyes for the camera.

I guess we can hope that the media might have got distracted by her consort and his designer suits, should she have chosen to bring one with her. After all, disproportionate as the attention is, the media are starting to pick on men for their appearance as well. Who can forget Tony Blair and his make-up, or David Cameron and the mystery of the moving parting? Happily for them, this construes but a tiny portion of their press. The words that come out of their mouths and the actions that they instigate still being regarded as rather more important than whether they have a taste for Dior over Prada.

I would love a world where a female politician in this country could get the kind of attention that Carla Bruni had last week without having to play the game that she has played of presenting herself merely as Sarkozy’s deferential spouse. I would love a world where the media spoke about a woman’s policies and opinions, not whether she is showing too much cleavage, too much leg or has a dodgy haircut. It makes me laugh when the attention is forced onto a male politician’s appearance for a bit, because maybe while it happens he understands the ongoing experience of female politicians in this country. But mostly I despair. I do not want more focus on male appearance, I want less focus on female appearance. Anything else really was not the kind of equality I was hoping for.

October 25, 2007

Britain’s abortion debate lacks moral bravery

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On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a comment piece for The Observer on abortion (Britain’s abortion debate lacks a moral dimension). Originally I thought the piece would make me angry, as so many articles on abortion do. Instead it left me sad and frustrated and ill at ease. In a truly Anglican style he did not come right out and argue for any particular point of view but if anything the implied opinions behind the argument made me more nervous.


My disagreements with the Archbishop began with his opening sentence. The Abortion Act apparently makes provision for ‘extreme and tragic situations’. The implication being that only extreme situations can be tragic, which is in no way the case. If he cannot conceive of a tragedy for women outside of rape or physical medical complications he shows a distinct lack of sympathetic imagination. And in arguing that those who voted for the 67 Abortion Act believed that these were the only situations in which the procedure would be used I believe he severely underestimates the intelligence of our legislators. The Act allows for abortion in cases of mental distress as well, it is clear from the terms of the Act that it allows abortion in cases beyond those outlined by the Archbishop and the availability of abortion in this country has long been recognised.


Throughout his article the Archbishop uses the scare mongering language familiar from the tabloid papers, while ostensibly speaking in reasonable terms. Statistics are ‘spiraling’, changes in behaviour show a ‘weakening of feeling’ and the history demonstrated by the 1967 Act is one of ‘slippage’ and ‘erosion’. He does not need to spell out that he is referring to moral slippage and the erosion of society that the reader should see abortion both contributing to and symbolising, a life time of extreme headlines in the newspapers has already filled in the gaps for us.


Despite the article insisting on abortion needing a moral perspective, when it comes to the matter of reducing the upper time limit for abortion he refers to technological developments, whereas this is one area of the debate where compassion should be uppermost. Again and again the argument has to be made that it is very few abortions that take place past 20 weeks and these are often the most desperate cases, or, in the Archbishop’s words, the most extreme and tragic. He makes no mention of the couples who discover the illness of their future child in 20 week tests or the teenage girl who has not realised she is pregnant, or was too scared to tell before. In a moral debate he would have science determine the course before he has the chance to loose.


Likewise the deliberately misunderstands, or refuses to consider, the moral intentions behind arguments made to allow women to administer the medicine required for a chemical abortion at home. Apparently this is to make abortion ‘simpler’, turning abortion into some kind of takeaway home-fix kit. This is both misleading and insulting. The initial stages of the abortion would still be carried out at a medical centre under supervision. Carrying out the final stages of an abortion in the privacy of one’s home does not mean that the decision is somehow taken lightly, it simply suggests that some of the medical service has the imagination to try to ease the pressure of a traumatic experience. It does not make the choice to do it easier but it might ease the pain. The Archbishop shows himself remarkably lacking in compassion in failing to consider this point.


As a religious leader it turns out that the Archbishop has a cowardly streak. In the article he skirts around the issues and points that he wants to make. A leader should provide guidance, especially a religious leader faced with what he believes to be a moral issue. Instead he is content to raise a controversial problem and leave it hanging, with only the small leads of what can be gleaned from his implied words as an indication of his wider meaning.


I have always argued that one of the strengths of the Church of England is its refusal to proscribe a moral or doctrinal position for its members so it is perhaps strange that I am berating the Archbishop of Canterbury for doing precisely that. My problem lies in the nature of the article. If he wished to provide a forum for a debate, or to begin one, then his article would surely have to be more generous in entertaining and bringing in all points of view. As it is, he does just enough in his language and through the points that he chooses to touch on to let his reader’s know of his disapproval of abortion without ever plainly stating it. He makes neither a strong moral case for his point of view nor creates a forum where debate can take place.


The end of the article reveals Rowen Williams’ intention to use a current debate on abortion to begin a wider analysis of moral decay in society. I would suggest that he is ill-advised to attempt such an analysis from such a beginning. Abortion is a very specific response to a very specific issue, the legislators who voted for the 1967 Abortion Act were brave in voting it through. They had the vision to recognise that what is good for society is not always harking back to an age where society magically functioned and the compassion to attempt to fight their way towards new moral choices in a difficult world. The Archbishop should not be afraid to join them.

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