Get naked. It’s an order.

Since the latest terrorist attacks have been driving much of France crazy, we seem to wait every week for the newest controversy, outrageous statement or ridiculous debate, with varying degrees of anxiety. In the past two weeks, some seaside towns have decided to take a completely unnecessary and possibly quite illegal step, as you’ve probably read in international media: they have forbidden bathers to wear burkini, a type of swimwear used by some Muslim women to hide their bodies while they bathe.

My first reaction was to feel a little bit more exhausted than usual. I’m not the target of those regulations, I’m not part of a religious minority, and I won’t pretend I’m the victim of anything here. But I still have to live in this country. Most of my students are Muslims. Part of what makes my job so complicated is the wedge that these politics are driving, day after day, between ‘people like me’ and ‘people like them’. I’m using quotation marks because that’s how my students see it. I’m not part of their world, so why should they listen to me? Once again, I have to thank some clueless politicians for making my job a little bit harder. Great. I can’t way for the first school days.

I want to be completely honest about one thing, even though it may not be the safest admission to make. I have very little sympathy for women who insist on dressing ‘modestly’. I think women’s modesty is a very loaded issue, and I don’t feel very comfortable around people who insist that coverig your body is a sign of moral virtue. What does it mean, then–am I a bad person for not wanting to hide my body? I’m certain that lots of people would reply that obviously, women who cover themselves up do not do it for or against me, they do it for their own personal reasons and it has no implications about my personal virtue or lack thereof. They would certainly be right, although that doesn’t make me more comfortable. When I walk around Marseilles, I get more or less unpleasant comments from men on a regular basis. The idea that I deserve less respect because I wear short skirts doesn’t seem so foreign to them. That’s why I’m not comfortable around people who parade female modesty as a sign of virtue. Like it or not, it does impact my life.

But there’s one thing this does not change: I’d rather have a real conversation about this, rather than see people toss humiliating regulations around. I know I’ll never get to discuss the implications of female modesty and the presence of the female body in the public space with my students, because one question will always come back to pollute the debate: if women should be able to wear whatever they want without being judged, why are religious clothes prohibited? And I know I can’t answer that question, becuse there’s no good answer. Yes, France is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion, and yet some religions should not be seen in public… Also, I don’t believe that the purpose of law is to make people comfortable, and it’s certainly not to make me comfortable. I’m fine with being uncomfortable as long as I can discuss why. The only thing we’ve gained is that now, there will be no discussion. Only hurt.

There’s another thing. Earlier this year, I considered shopping for a burkini myself. Not for religious reasons, but for a very simple practical one: my skin is extremely fair, burns very easily, and I want to stop using sunscreen on the beach as much as possible, because sunscreen is very damaging for marine wildlife (just imagine that blanket of clouds that blocks out all sunlight in The Matrix, only the blanket is made of sunscreen particles diluted in the water–you get the idea). I didn’t, because burkinis are not form-fitting and I assumed it would be a pain in the arse to swim around wearing one. But there was one thing I couldn’t help noticing: apparently, when you’re on the beach, you’re supposed to be as naked as possible. Long-sleeved swimwear is almost non-existant, and I found nothing that could cover my legs. Seriously, am I the only person in this continent whose skin is prone to burning? If I want to take a swim while protecting my skin, what is the fucking problem with that?

It’s summer. Go naked. Wear a bikini even if you’re a little girl with no breasts. Bare your legs even if you’re a self-conscious teenager who’d rather stay in her bedroom. If you can’t be bothered to shave, face the judgement that will inevitably come, you don’t simply have the option of wearing something on top of your unsightly legs. Groom that skin cancer or hide in the shade, there’s no alternative for you. It sucks. A lot. That’s why I raised an eyebrow today, when reading an article by a famous French (female) polemist, who argued that yes, of course banning burkinis is probably illegal, but that’s a shame because ‘people go to the beach to relax, not to collide head first with other people’s convictions or ideologies’. Fair enough, but who are these mysterious ‘people’? Apparently not women who would like to wear burkinis, because they will definitely have to confront other people’s ideologies (and have to disrobe) instead of just being able to enjoy a nice day in the sun. Not people like me either, because life’s a bitch and now it makes me so sad to put on sunscreen and realise how I’m contributing to killing off the sea I love more than so many things in the world, and so I don’t always get to relax either. It must be nice to feel so important you imagine that the purpose of your society’s laws and organisation must be to help you relax. Don’t worry, the police are here to make sure that just the right people are publicly humiliated and that ‘other people’s convictions’ won’t hurt your nice day on the beach.


Survivors need their foils

I’m taking a minor break from steampunk at the moment, and getting into zombie stuff as well (more on this to come one of these days on my new research blog). I’ve been delighted to discover The Walking Dead, which I had not even heard about before coming to Canada. Eleven episodes into the storyline, it’s a great show, and quite thought-provoking when you consider the questions it asks about survival and ethics in general. In many ways, it reminds me of Lost, especially in its reflections on power dynamics and tensions inside a small group of survivors. I wouldn’t use it as a textbook on how to act during an actual apocalypse (and I really, really hope it doesn’t end with some inept twist about everybody being led to heaven by a guy called Super Duper Christian Patriarch or something like that), but it’s getting me thinking. Also, like Lost, it’s getting me thoroughly riled about the characters, for the exact same reason.

I loved Lost. I was just extremely pissed off that after playing at turning stereotypes on their heads for a couple of episodes, the producers just decided to get on board with every possible prejudice audiences may hold about any possible group. Thus the Iraqi communications officer became a torturer, the badass female criminal became a crying mess incapable of acting without the male lead’s go-ahead, the black guy… conveniently disappeared off the island, if I remember correctly, and everybody started to agree that since a leader was needed, why not just pick the straight white able-bodied upper-middle-class man of the group, because of course they would. And that left me with about five seasons and a half to enjoy the story while simultaneously facepalming every two seconds at the utter lack of imagination of the authors when it came to stereotyped social roles.

So when I watched the first episode from The Walking Dead, I didn’t even bother getting my hopes up. Of course the straight white male cop who has just joined the group is going to be elected ‘natural leader’, and everybody’s role is going to be permanently defined by their social category: Woman, Black, Redneck, Elderly and what the hell. Stuff realism, this is TV.

What saddens me with both Lost and The Walking Dead and countless other shows and movies is how slow authors are when it comes to understanding what makes a narrative stereotyped. People get bored with on-screen sexism? No problem! Let’s get them some Strong Female Characters! They get bored with the misrepresentation of people of colour? Let’s get more characters of colour, and let them do stuff! Problem solved! Yay! Now the ladies have guns and black people get to talk, what do you have left to complain about? We might even imply that one of the secondary characters has had same-sex experiences some time in their youth! We’re perfect!

Except that giving the ladies guns and making them stamp their foot and throw a tantrum about being allowed to play with the boys cannot possibly solve anything. Because the representation of women, and to a lesser extent, other categories of marginalised people, is not the problem anymore. Producers and authors have finally caught up with the difficult notions that everybody can hold a gun and use their heads from time to time. But they’re one category nobody is questionning their stereotypes about, and as long as they won’t, they will be unable to move forward. This category is straight white able-bodied middle-class men.

What are the stereotypes about straight white guys, then? Well, for one thing, they’re supposed to be dominant. They’re complex, they have plenty of feelings, they have personal problems to solve. They don’t let anyone step on their feet. They care for their own. They have stories. Big, important, complex stories often involving father/son relationships because let’s not forget to reinforce patriarchy in the least subtle way we can.

Now, all of those stereotypes have something in common: they’re really cumbersome. See, when you stereotype a woman as a shrinking violet, it only affects her. When the only personality you can imagine for a black man is that he’s angry and obsessed with racism for no reason, it’s crappy, but it does not affect other characters. When you want a stereotypical straight white guy, however, you need the cooperation of everyone else around. A man cannot be dominant if no one is submissive. He can’t be in charge if there isn’t anyone around to screw up from time to time and give him pieces to pick up. He can’t turn out to be a natural leader if nobody is lousy at leadership. He can’t protect his people if his people are perfectly able to protect themselves without help. It can’t be his story if other characters are not there to be used as props and discarded when he needs emotional motivation. In other words, if you leave one single stereotyped SWABMCM in the group (sorry about the acronym, just getting tired of the run-on sentences), it’s a bit like letting your cat sleep on the sofa, or letting a macho guy sit down in public transport: he’s going to stretch and take all the available room until nobody else can be comfortable in the same space. Just let one of them into your story, and you might as well not bother at all with working on stereotypes. The girl may have a gun, she will still need to be saved at some point, otherwise the hero couldn’t be a hero. The Arab guy may have a complex backstory and personality, he’ll still need to behave like a savage, so the hero can be calm and composed and civilised. The redneck may have feelings, he will have to spew out some bigoted rubbish every now and then, so we can see that the hero won’t stand for it. The black person may have their own personal relationship to racism, they won’t be able to stand up for themselves, because it has to be the hero who rescues them from oppression.

I don’t care that ‘audiences want a sympathetic hero they can identify with’. Give me Lost without Jack Shepard and The Walking Dead without Rick Grimes, and I promise you I’ll be happy to identify with anyone else in the cast. It won’t be hard, you know. When you remove the one stiffling story of the compulsory stereotyped white hero, you discover a good dozen fascinating stories that were waiting right there for a little space to bloom. Try it, I assure you. It can only make it better.

I’m a strong woman!

It’s official: I have now included regular press-ups in my exercising routine. Short series, but one has to get started somewhere.

Not very impressive for people used to exercising on a regular basis, I know, but incredibly satisfying. After all, it flies in the face of so many stupid things I’ve had to hear ever since I started toying with the idea that working out might be a good idea after all:

‘If you work out too much, you’ll get square shoulders and that’s no good.’

‘If your neck and jaw muscle develop, it will be very ugly because you’ll look like a man.’ (Note to all guys out there: If we drop ‘looking like a man and therefore ugly’, could you drop ‘pink is humiliating’ as a courtesy?)

‘Women shouldn’t practice certain sports because they’re such beautiful creatures, it’s a shame when they do unsightly things.’

‘Girls can’t do press-ups because of the anatomy of their back.’ (I actually heard that one, I’m not sure where. Of course it’s rubbish, but it’s funny how willing people are to propagate urban legends when it comes to female strength.)

‘Very muscular girls are disgusting.’ (Uh. Disgusting? You mean, like a dead rat? Or having to eat raw rotten meat? Elaboration, please.)

‘AAAAHHHH BE CAREFUL DON’T LIFT THAT IT’S HEAVY!!!’ (invariably said in a panicked tone, occasionally causing me to wonder if I missed the memo where they said that ‘heavy’ now meant ‘radioactive’)

‘Give this to me, it’s too heavy for you!’ (Not to be annoying, but no it’s not. You can see it plainly, because I’m carrying it. If it was too heavy I couldn’t carry it in the first place. That’s what ‘too heavy’ means.)

And then there are all the little things you won’t notice until after you’ve looked more seriously into exercising techniques. The fact that exercise routines for women invariably involve doing many reps with very small weights; those exercises aren’t actually designed to gain strength (unlike exercises designed for men), but to lose fat and gain endurance. And they’re not easy to get rid of either. I once specifically asked a professional coach for a tailored programme to develop strength in my upper body, and I left his company with a full abs-and-thighs slimming programme, with exactly three exercises for back and torso muscles (the ones for endurance, of course, not the ones for muscular mass)(also, my arse is fine the way it is, fat and all, thanks a LOT, coach). Not to mention that very helpful guy who recently watched me work out with 12-lbs weights and suggested a great exercise to tone my biceps using 3-lbs weights. Yeah, that’s about why I make my own programme now.

I’m willing to accept that women are biologically less heavy and less strong than men, although that doesn’t change the fact that we spend roughly ninety-nine percent of our lives fighting biological nature in all its forms and it’s quite infuriating when the only area where people insist on living by biology’s rules is–SURPRISE!–gender relationships. I just can’t imagine how there can be any question that observable differences don’t reflect innate genetic traits: women are discouraged from exercising even more enthusiastically than men are encouraged to do so. And yes, pilates classes and other forms of exercise ‘for women’ are just another way to make sure female bodies will remain safely underdevelopped: having women practise special toned-down sports ensures that they won’t get any ideas if they see a dumbell, for instance. It’s alright, I’m not going to make a fuss about it. I’m just possibly going to strangle whoever next serves me with the old ‘but you can’t deny there are differences, it’s obvious women are less strong’ routine. But just a little, and gently. I’m a weak and fragile female after all.

The rugby season started again a while ago. Aix wasn't doing so well, so we went to support them for their game against a slightly better team last Saturday. The grounds were chilly, there was an orchestra playing classics of Serbian music, cheesy dance music at the entrance, we couldn't get our hands on a sausage sandwitches on account of the crowd at the bar, some children had brought big signs with the name of the opposite team and hearts all around, and we won! Because we're the best! Well, not really the best, but at least now we're not last in the championship anymore. Hey, that's an achievement!

But there was something about that game we weren't all that pleased about. During the interval, a group of girls wearing flashy red and yellow clothes, tiny shorts and glittering pom-poms strutted onto the pitch to the sound of some cheery disco. And that's when we realised it had happened. There are cheerleaders in rugby now.

Now there's one thing I want to make clear. I love North America. And yes, of course the US and Canada have their lousy traditions like the rest of us, but then that's nothing special; come to one of those endless Sunday lunches in an average French family, you'd be embarrassed for us too. This has nothing to do with contempt for things American. Now can I make an honest proposal? We give you back that whole cheerleading business and pretend none of it ever happened, and instead we adopt one of your brilliant traditions, like graduation ceremonies. We really need to have graduation ceremonies, and we really don't need cheerleaders. Pretty please?

What was that? Why yes, I know it's not your fault our rugby teams started to have cheerleaders, don't change the subject. It just makes me very unhappy, because, just what were they thinking? That you can land a dozen pretty girls with naked legs in the middle of a sports event in South France, and that people are going to take it gracefully? That there won't be any wolf-whistles, catcalls, leers and other display of Southern elegance? Well there were. Even if I had any sympathy for the tradition of cheerleading in general (and I don't–I'd love to see girls on a rugby pitch, but if it can be helped, I'd rather watch them play), it couldn't work here. There's too much unabashed machismo, and too much of the, erm, "tradition of French-style seduction", which is also known as the DSK method, in case you're wondering.

So don't add sexy cheerleaders to the mix. Please.