An open letter: Marginalisation in academia

 

To whoever wants to understand,

I am so profoundly sad. As I write, I cry – the kind of tears that feel as though they will never end, the kind that are experienced in times of deep sadness – they are rare and I cry not just for me, but for everyone.

It is important that I tell my story.

It begins with the letter M:

Marginalised

I have always been marginalised.

I suppose in many ways this comes hand-in-hand with the territory. I am an out-spoken, quirky, mixed-race female with working class roots from a middle-class background. I come from a predominantly white area in Salford and have attended both private and state schools.

Due to my heritage I am connected with countries all over the world, from Jamaica to India, Britain to Canada to those native to Jamaica – the Arawak Indians. My roots spread from continent to continent; I am firmly grounded in an amalgam of complexity and it is safe to say that because of this my experiences vary immensely from my peers.

It is reasonable to say I am often the outsider or the other, in many ways, which stem from both a conscious and unconscious ignorance, I’ve been treated as such. We live in a society where difference is immediately associated with wrongness and because of this I have experienced marginalisation, prejudice and racism in its many-faced forms, all of which are cruel, vicious and ugly.

I have suffered at the hands of my peers and teachers alike. This was especially problematic the three years I attended private school and I was subjected to horrific torment and verbal abuse. It is these experiences that shaped some of my most important years and they will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is because of this I am aware of a deeply ingrained racism and elitism that is inherent within the world of education. I suppose that is what inspired me to write this article, a recent situation at university which – as unintentional as it may have been – left me feeling extremely uncomfortable.

One of the course texts Three Lives, written by Gertrude Stein, was abhorrently racist and I’m not talking about the kind of racism that is addressed constructively, or racism that establishes social and historical context, I’m talking down-right blatant racism with no reasonable justification.

The story told the lives of three women, two white and the other girl of mixed-race background, or “mulatto”. My mixed heritage made me immediately connect with this character – at what other point am I going to find a mixed-race woman represented on an English Literature course? 

Never.

I read the story only to be met with repugnant words that left me feeling bitter for days; the word “nigger” was used multiple times in both the dialogue and the narrative voice. When the time came for the lecture the novel was introduced as a “Negro” text, and it was at this moment that I felt there was something wrong. I felt that I was not a student studying in 2017 Britain but had in fact time-travelled back to the not-so-distant past, to a time when it was considered progressive to call black people Negroes, to a time when institutionalised racism was not considered racism at all.

The mixed-raced girl depicted, Melanthca, was ‘half white’ and had been ‘half made with real white blood’; this not only drew attention to the fact I was the only mixed-race woman in the room, but the only person of colour too.

When the tutor was questioned about the racism inherent within the novella he did indeed acknowledge the prejudice within the text, but argued that the use of innovative language overshadowed this, stating that it was acceptable because it was a highly original artistic endeavour.

I was shocked: artistic genius does not justify racism, not ever and certainly not now. It is the implementation of this age-old ideology that is so apparent in modern academia; it is both wrong and concerning. Academic institutions are a place where new ideas are supposed to flourish, yet in reality it is where outdated modes of thinking thrive.

Someone in the seminar asked the tutor if he thought it appropriate for a white, middle class woman to assume the experiences of a mixed-race working class female. The tutor replied that denying the re-writing of another’s experiences would be to deny the imagination; he wholeheartedly failed to recognise the implications behind this for someone like me.

It is clear he has spoken from a position of privilege and a position of ignorance, standing above all as a white middle class male and a university professor. It is this pedestal that blinkers not only his perception but many other academics.

It was an extremely alienating situation and for the first time in many years I became hyper-aware of my ethnicity. I was the elephant in the room, an imposter – why was I in a room full of white people, studying English literature at a highly-rated academic institution? It scares me that this is a question I felt necessary to ask.

My argument here is not that we do not study texts that include racist narratives and rhetoric; it is a part of history that we all need to embrace. Rather it is the way that these texts are embraced that needs to be considered. If we are to progress further and away from racist structures then they need to be dealt with sensitively; the racism should not be overlooked. If the texts are racist then it needs to be discussed sensitively, with an awareness of how it may makes “the other” feel. Whether people like it or not the nature of our ever-diversifying society means that more and more people like me will be accepted into academic institutions.

Awareness is necessary.

Change is necessary.

But change only occurs when we use our voices.

I want to reiterate: just because prejudice isn’t overt does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is subtle, it is hidden and it is discreet. But I cannot hide and nor will I. I do not want sympathy. I do not want pity. I want empathy. I want understanding. I want to be heard. I want change.

This article was originally posted on Aimie's blog; Digging With Duggan
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Why are so few women directing blockbusters?

Hollywood Hills – Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

How many female directors can you name?

Don’t feel self conscious about the answer, when I asked myself the question I was lost after three. Google helped me to realise that I had seen films and television shows from a few more than that, but very few of them have ever been given the two-hundred million dollar budget of the modern blockbuster.

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recently carried out a study to explore the lack of female directors of big budget cinema in Hollywood, and last month The Guardian compiled stories from nine women working across the film industry regarding their experiences with sexism.

A number of interesting things were revealed by these two pieces, first, women directors predominantly find success in low budget cinema, such as short fiction and documentaries. But very few are able to get bigger budget projects off the ground, the reason seeming to be that executives do not trust women with big budgets.

There are a number of possible reasons for this, but the most interesting is the fear by executives that if they vouch for a female director on a project and then they mess up, it will reflect badly on the executive.

This rationale is used to explain how women executives, who are invariably outnumbered by men in their job, can also cave to a peer pressure that breeds this institutional inequality.

One female Director and former karate master, Lexi Alexander, has a rather telling story about a driver who refused to believe that she was a director and so refused to drive her.

Sexism in the industry seems to show itself in subtle ways, though sometimes it’s outright obvious. One unnamed action movie star apparently threw out the possibility of a female director on an unnamed project because he “refuses to be directed by a woman.”

An Endemic Issue in the Industry

These problems are of course faced by more than just directors, The Guardian article speaks to women with experience in every area of production – from screenwriters and costume designers, to cinematographers and editors.

The one area it does not focus on however, is the actors, who by no means have it easier. There seem to be just as many accounts of sexual advances from movie bosses today, under the guises of an audition, as there ever have been. And as female actors get older their casting opportunities become less and less varied.

Liv Tyler, who you’ll know from Armageddon and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has said that at 38 she’s only being offered parts as either The Wife or The Girlfriend, which is understandably frustrating after playing a badass like Arwen.

An even bigger issue for female actors however is the disparity in their pay when compared to their male co-stars. Last years Sony hack revealed that Jennifer Lawrence’s pay for the film American Hustle was less than her male co-stars’, despite her arguably being the films biggest box office draw.

On the subject of disparities in her own pay compared to her co-stars in the Iron Man movies, Gwyneth Paltrow had this to say: “It can be painful. Your salary is a way to quantify what you’re worth. If men are being paid a lot more for doing the same thing, it feels shitty.”

Again, the issue seems to be the same as with women directors; executives do not seem to be comfortable giving the women they employ large amounts of money, be it in budgets or pay.

Finding Success Elsewhere

To escape the problems of budgetary issues, many female writers and directors in recent years have been finding work and recognition in television.

Arguably the best example of this being Michelle Maclaren who has directed episodes for The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad – the latter of which she has won two Prime Time Emmy’s for as an executive producer.

In writing (and this may come as a surprise to some) Mad Men’s writing staff at one point was composed nearly entirely of women, seven of the nine writers, and throughout its run had a significant number of its departments composed of and run by women.

So we come to the question again, why is it so difficult for aspiring Directors like these to make it into cinema?

Ultimately, it comes down to just plain old boring prejudice, there is no real justification for it, it’s just a status quo that’s been perpetuated for too long that nobody is quite certain how to fix. Some suggest introducing diversity quotas, others believe that the solution will only come as more women reach positions of control in studios and the system becomes less dominated by men.

The landscape seems to be changing little by little, we are at least talking about it in mainstream publications and studying it openly. The upcoming movie adaptation of Wonder Woman is being directed by the aforementioned Michelle Maclaren, I wish I could believe that other female directors will land big budget projects as a consequence – but only time will tell.

Lad Culture: Why are we STILL debating this?

Slutwalk Trafalgar Square, June 2011 – Flickr/Garry Knight

I am sure you’re sick of reading the words “lad culture”. So am I and so are the other women who have experienced it at university. But despite the numerous articles, campaigns and research carried out into tackling lad culture on UK campuses, it is still rife. Until this culture is eradicated, we must keep talking about it, highlighting it and challenging it and its culprits.

During my Fresher’s week it seemed  anything went; drinking copious amounts of alcohol, making new friends, wearing ridiculous costumes and singing at the top of your voice on a double-decker bus. One of the songs we sang went: “Now she’s dead but not forgotten, dig her up and fuck her rotten.”

At the time, in my drunken haze, I didn’t even contemplate what I was singing. Looking back, this chant is downright disgusting and extremely disturbing. What makes it worse is that we were taught this chant by older, sober representatives who were supposed to be there to look after us. Why did we all think this was normal?

This is not banter.

I know what many of you will be thinking: “it’s just a song it doesn’t matter”, “lighten up it’s just banter”, “stupid girl, get over it”. And maybe you’re right, after all it is just a song. But I don’t really consider necrophilia to be banter. This was the first time I witnessed lad culture at play, and it definitely would not be the last.

To be one of the “lads” you’re expected to drink heavily, sleep around and then discuss your “conquests” with the rest of the “lads” over a cheeky Nandos and a pint. One of the most famous examples of lad culture in action comes from the rugby boys at LSE.

At the LSE’s freshers’ fair, the male rugby team handed out leaflets in which they described women as “trollops”, “mingers” and “slags”. It went on to describe women who play sport as “beast-like women who only play so they can come out with us on Wednesdays”. The leaflet also detailed part of their initiation, which included “pulling a sloppy bird”.

The disgusting laddish behaviour of university sports teams struck again, but this time a bit further North at a Durham University college. Members of the college rugby team played a game called “It’s not rape if…” at their social, where each of the players had to find a way to finish off the sentence. These are just two examples, but I am sure you are all recounting similar instances from your own universities or colleges.

Of course all of this was just “banter”, just part of the culture of university. But within the university environment lad culture is flourishing and becoming more and more dangerous. If we keep defining these offensive, sexist and misogynistic acts as just “banter” and “laddish” antics, we are heading down a slippery slope.

A survey by the NUS in 2014 revealed that 1 in every 4 students at UK universities have been subject to unwanted sexual advances. Hidden Marks reported that 1 in 7 women had experienced serious sexual or physical violence at university, and 68% had been sexually assaulted.

From incidents such as groping and forceful kissing, to games such as “pull the pig” (where the task is to get with the least attractive girl in the club) and “harpooning” (the largest girl), to un-consensual drunken sex and un-consensual sober sex. The dangerous lengths lad culture stretches too are clearly far beyond  boyish behaviour.

Lad culture is clearly synonymous with sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault on our university campuses.

Calling it what it is.

It’s time we stopped calling this behaviour “lad culture” and start calling it what it is: misogyny. How can sexism and harassment at university be something that we continue to ignore? How can we live in a supposedly equal gender society and still be okay with lad culture? How can so many people come forward to oppose this culture, and campaign for its end, yet its still so rife?

Universities across the UK have been too slow to get involved with this issue, consistently sweeping the problem under the rug until something serious occurs. But by that point it is too late? UK universities need to increase their resources and focus their time more wisely, in order to tackle a problem that affects 37% of the female student population and 12% of males.

Distributing “consent quizzes” at the Freshers fair (instead of the free pens and drinks vouchers) is a good place to start, and holding consent workshops is even better. However, we still have a long way to go before grabbing a girl in a nightclub and these vile chants and games are seen as sexual harassment and not just “laddish behaviour”.

For more articles related to feminism and lad culture, check out Evie’s blog here