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If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and they were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed uninterruptedly into one another, through their arms and their touching fingers.

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary film Babies. Featuring four families across the world raising their newborn children from birth to their first steps, it celebrates the creation of life itself. It is a beautiful, sweet film and left me feeling so happy afterwards.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers…not so much.

The book opens with contrasting accounts of the childhood experiences of its two main characters, Alice and Mattia. In 1983 Alice fell from a ski-lift at a resort and seriously injured her leg. Left alone in the snow, her clothes befouled by a release of her bowels, the young girl retreated into herself as she waited to be rescued. Afterwards she becomes obsessed with controlling her eating, developing anorexia. In 1984 Mattia abandoned his disabled twin sister Michela in a public park to avoid embarrassment at a schoolfriend’s birthday party. When he returned to the spot, she had vanished. Traumatised by his part in her disappearance, Mattia begins a life-long habit of self-mutilation.

School is just a series of endless humiliating encounters for them both. Alice is picked on by a gang of girls she is desperate to fit in with. Mattia unwittingly encourages another boy into becoming infatuated with him, when he openly slicing his hand in a biology class. The tragically enraptured Dennis assumes this is a product of homosexual self-loathing. As both children grow into adolescence they eventually become friends, their intimacy founded on a mutual co-dependency and sense of alienation. They also both become obsessed with different disciplines. Mattia is a gifted mathematician, the cold austerity of numbers suiting his internalised view of the world. Alice embraces photography as a means of capturing and controlling what she sees, just as she does her food.

Paolo Giordano describes the painful process of growing up that can faced by many young people. Where I part company from him is the excessive misery described here. Alice and Mattia grow into adulthood burdened by the same psychological damage that afflicted them as children. In fact adulthood here is shown to be the aftermath of the cruel vicissitudes of childhood.

After finishing this book I was left in a depressive funk for most of the afternoon. Mainly it was due to the hopelessness of these two lost souls. Where I begin to suspect this to be a work of continental misery lit, is in the faint prospect in Mattia being reunited with his missing twin in the latter half of the book. This prospect is dangled in front of the reader by Giordano and then pulled away abruptly.

Do I want to spend a day in the company of two people with no hope, no chance and forever traumatised by two singularly tragic events? No not particularly.

Intelligently written, but dark and quite depressing.

 

When I first heard there was a book deal on offer, I was pretty reluctant about it. I’ve learnt a lot about the value of privacy. But some arse was putting adverts in the local Swindon paper asking for stories about me and my family. He was writing a book about a person he’d never met. It pissed me off. Even though it’s my story to tell, my thoughts, my feelings, I felt quite odd about doing it. But actually it’s been an amazing experience.

Billie Piper’s life since becoming an English pop star at the age of fifteen has been lived in tabloid headlines. In the minds of the British public, there is a very defined idea of who she is. As the quote above shows, Piper is well able to speak for herself and took the opportunity to set the record straight. She’s been a heavily marketed teeny bopper; a makeshift rival to the chart dominance of Britney Spears; a hate figure for her relationship with a male pop star; a teenage wife and the onscreen companion to a time-travelling alien. Plenty of material for a biography, despite the subject at the time of writing not having left her twenties yet.

The structure of Piper’s biography is broken up by a odd timeline, opening with her swift rise in the pop charts and then telling the story of her life with her family before fame came calling. A devoted fan of Madonna from a young age, Billie hoped to imitate the American icon. Instead she found herself facing mounting debt at a young age, still at fifteen years lacking a proper parent in her life, with her management team a poor substitute. It is a bizarre world of extremes. On the one hand she is meeting with celebrities and getting sex tips from her backing dancers when living the pop star life. Then she returns to Swindon to cook fish fingers for her younger siblings and getting hits off a bucket bong with mates on the weekend. Her growing romance with Ritchie Neville from 5ive transforms the pop princess into a hate figure for the teen fan base of her celebrity boyfriend. Eventually she found herself growing further and further apart from her family and finding no stable emotional ties to anyone else in her new life. As a result she finds herself slipping more and more into anorexic behavior, euphemistically referred to by people in the entertainment industry as ‘old faithful’. With failing record sales, a well-documented reliance on laxatives and a suicide attempt while promoting her music in America, the teen star was swiftly approaching a breakdown.

Billie credits her meeting with Chris Evans for her recovery. A hugely successful British television and radio personality, the two soon married shortly after meeting. Evans caught her eye by delivering a Ferrari race-car to her doorstep. The romance that followed was not so much a whirlwind, but a retreat from the entertainment industry and glitz of London. The couple relocate their life to a cottage in the English countryside and try to find themselves. The media responds by painting Evans as a cradle-snatching pervert and bemoan the end of Billie’s music career. Ironically for her, this is the happiest period of her life to date and in leaving her pop star past behind, she reinvents herself as an actress. A return to a more controlled fame and the role of the Doctor’s companion is just on the horizon.

While this is a very honest piece of writing, the telling of it feels telegraphed throughout. In a break with tradition, Billie thanks her ghost on the acknowledgements page at the end of the book. As such there are occasional slips during the book. There is a regrettable reference to a quote from the Sopranos – with neither Billie nor her ghost writer seemingly aware the line is a parody of Al Pacino’s famous outburst in The Godfather Part III. There is little naming and shaming in the book and music promoters, studio crew and production assistants on Who are fulsomely praised. Throughout Billie pitches herself as an ordinary woman who just happens to be living an extraordinary life.

I was never a fan of Misery Lit and so found her descriptions of lonely hotel rooms and anorexia quite depressing. Nevertheless this is an intimate and winning account of a life trapped by fame.

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