A Hallowe’en ode to Practical Magic

There’s been a wave of Twitter chats recently around favourite bad films (Kong: Skull Island), unpopular opinions (The Lion King is mediocre animal Hamlet with mostly bad tunes) and the like. It’s a great platform for the random and reactionary. But one film kept bafflingly coming up as a “guilty pleasure” with astonishing regularity: Practical Magic.

Now, we all know why that is. We know that it doesn’t actually matter on any level whether it’s a good romantic comedy or not (it is), if the script is smart (mostly), the performances are on point (yup) or the structure makes sense (eh, more or less). What matters is that it’s a women’s film, and we can easily dismiss womeny things that men couldn’t possibly be interested in like love and magic and, um, being beaten and strangled by your insane abusive ex. Actually, it really is a women’s film. Continue reading →

Big Hero 6: The four-year-old’s verdict (and the merchandising)


(For my review of the film, pop over here)

Children are often a peculiar mix of heart-stopping fearlessness and weird phobias, and mine is no different. Although given half the chance she’d be an unrepentant square eyes for huge periods of the day, she’s very up and down about new films and tends to be a bit wary of the cinema. This weekend, I tempted her into a viewing of Big Hero 6 using popcorn as bribery and the promise of a little reward afterwards if she was brave; it was also our opportunity to use a Yo! Sushi voucher we’d be given for a themed meal, and she was already proudly wearing a yellow GoGo Tomago wristband.

These were her reactions:

“That was funny when that robot hit that man in the face!”
*waves her arms around dramatically* “I’m being GoGo Tomago – like on my bracelet!”
“Imagine if you could fly like that, Mama…”
“Is ‘Lemon’ Honey’s last name?”
*lots of giggles*
“I thought that was really COOL!”
I’d primed her that she could look away or duck out if it got too much for her, but she only dived into my arm once, for less than a second, at a close up on the villain’s slightly creepy kabuki mask.

Afterwards, we popped into the Disney Store, where she chose a small Honey Lemon figure to play with (not the one below). I’ve mentioned before that the women of Big Hero 6  are in general more diverse and widely represented than in previous films; having my daughter play with in a brave, kind Latina scientist who is applauded for what she does, not how she looks, feels good. Casting an eye over the shelves was also reassuring – although Frozen and Marvel superheroes were at opposite ends of the store, all the Big Hero 6 merchandise was together, female and male characters mixed up, with the women shown in action poses on the packaging. I was pleasantly surprised to find a journal set with Honey Lemon on the cover that wasn’t sequinned or pinkified. GoGo’s doll figure was sold out this time, but I’ve seen it before with properly built up leg muscles to reflect both her animation and the fact that she’s a runner and cyclist. When you visit the website, the t-shirts and pyjamas are simply labelled “for kids” (and FYI Disney, this adult would LOVE a Baymax t-shirt if you’d consider sizing up in the UK and not just the US; maybe not this one though, given my proportions…).

IMG_4685  IMG_4686

Disclaimer: This was just a family day out, but the Yo! Sushi kids’ meal was courtesy of the screening goodie bag at which I first saw the film.

International Women’s Day: Things I’ll Teach My Daughter

I wrote a post a bit like this before Ramona was born; I can’t link to it because it’s lost in the mists of Vox time, and though I have a backup somewhere, I think I’d like to start this fresh. On a day when campaigns ranging from basic human rights for women to equal pay and opportunities are celebrated around the globe, I would say that I’m reminded of my responsibility as the mother of a girl, but I never forget it.

I don’t believe boys and girls are fundamentally all that different to raise in a bubble; the differences, such as they are, are biologically pretty minor (see Pink Brain, Blue Brain). But I won’t be raising Ramona in a bubble. I’ll be raising her in a world that routinely insists that women can and should be discriminated against repeatedly just because they’re women. So there are certain things I really need to teach her, and I don’t necessarily know how yet.

Here are three things among many that I will consider it my duty to try and get across to her:

1. Equality does not mean being treated in exactly the same way as everyone else. It’s about having your needs and rights respected equally, so a woman is given the same status and respect as a man. There are going to be some instances where there is no equivalent – child bearing, for example – but do not let people use that as a vague excuse for misogyny. Mumblings about holding open doors are red herrings (you should hold open doors too, you know, for anyone. That’s just manners). It is not about being treated as if you were a man but about everyone being treated as a human being; people who make snide remarks about how if you want equality then no-one should treat you with courtesy are just perpetuating a patriarchal viewpoint – why should being treated as a man by the benchmark, if indeed men are treated discourteously? Because of the privilege they often deny men have! – as well as nonsense.

2. Ignore anything that’s written about ‘biological imperative’. If anyone tells you that men or women are behaviourally ‘hard wired’ to do anything, that’s probably bollocks. For one, studies of children (see PB,BB again) show that boys and girls are not actually very different from each other, so the differences in adults might well be from social, rather than physical, conditioning. For another, we are constantly evolving, so there’s no reason to believe we are still so heavily influenced by early human behaviour. There have been many excuses for treating women poorly based on biology, and all of them have been, in time, shown to be outstandingly stupid, so do be analytical and, in the proper sense of the word, critical about anything you read in this area.

3. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘feminist’. It just means that you care about people being treated with equal respect and status (including men, though they rarely need the lobbying – perhaps the only exception is in custody battles). It does not mean you have to look or behave a certain way. Feminists come in all shapes, sizes, dispositions and genders. If you want to hose yourself in Pepto Bismol pink because you like it, then fine. And if you want to wear baggy trousers and steel-capped boots, fine. And if you want to walk the line somewhere in the middle, ignoring either extreme of the stereotype spectrum well, then, I admit I’d like that best of all. Do not believe that to passionately hold values means you have to wear a certain uniform in order to be accepted by the group or palatable to a wider audience. In other, more succinct, words, this is what a feminist looks like.

Maternity leave, misunderstandings and misogyny

And, apparently, alliteration.

Yesterday I came across a Guardian CiF piece about EU maternity laws and the vote on extending minimum maternity leave to 20 weeks on full pay which yesterday got mixed backing. In the article, MEP Mary Honeyball argued that this would hit the poorest hardest, as the current system gives those less well off the chance to get a standard maternity payment and take a year off.

Except that Mary Honeyball is innacurate on at least one point and the commenters on her article are badly misinformed about others. Here are the points about the article – and its attendant comments – that troubled me.

1. There is a simple factual innacuracy – or at least a simplification (leaving out part-time workers, which might include many women who have one child already) – that slightly alters things. Honeyball says:

The maths are simple: for a woman on the minimum wage of £5.93, working for 40 hours a week, weekly pay would be £237.20 per week. If she took the full entitlement for maternity leave, she would receive £213.48 per week for the first six weeks (90% of full pay – £1,280.88) and £124.88 per week for the next 33 weeks (standard rate, regardless of earnings), which amounts to £4,121.04. She would also have the option of 13 further weeks’ maternity leave (unpaid). This is a total of £5,401.92.

However, under the proposals being voted on in the European parliament, which seek to provide 20 weeks maternity leave on full pay, a woman with the same working conditions would receive £237.20 per week for the first 20 weeks, a total of £4,744. This would be around £650 less than under the current system. Of course, part-time workers would stand to lose more.

[my emphasis]

The government’s website says:

If you qualify for SMP, it is paid:

  • for the first six weeks at 90 per cent of your average gross weekly earnings with no upper limit
  • for the remaining 33 weeks at the lower of either the standard rate of £124.88, or 90 per cent of your average gross weekly earnings

[my emphasis]

Now, in Honeyball’s example it makes little difference, as someone working full time getting over £125 a week (as, indeed, on minimum wage they should be) will qualify for the standard payment, but this does not include minimum wage part timers, which she mentions but doesn’t focus on.Yet these are likely to be among the worst off. And by saying that ‘part timers stand to lose more’, this is only the case for part-timers who qualify for the £125 payment. Many won’t, and these people will actually gain, going from 90% of their salary to 100% of their salary (and of course it’s cheaper, childcare-wise, and emotionally easier for them to go back to work earlier). But there’s a more important problem with Honeyball’s argument, which I’m coming to next.

2. ‘The maths’ don’t actually make sense.

If the EU system were put into place, the woman would go back to work at 20 weeks, thus continuing to get 100% of her salary. So instead of recieving £5,000 to see her through a year, she’d be on £12,000+. She’d never get on to that system of £125 a week, because she’d be back at work. This doesn’t mean I agree with the proposal, just that Honeyball’s argument that she’d be materially worse off isn’t true as she works it out. Honeyball doesn’t argue – as she might – that by going back to work at 20 weeks childcare costs might escalate, thus costing the woman more; she just works out the payments without considering how long those payments have to last for and therefore what they mean in real terms.

Now, I understand why Honeyball disagrees with the proposal, and why the UK government is lobbying against this becoming law here, as there are many problems with it. But it is simply false to say that the least well off will lose money. They won’t; in fact, most will gain it. What they’ll lose is something that a mother might argue is far more valuable: they’ll lose time.

Well, that’s the same as it is now. Those of us who depend on the statutory allowances will always be unable to take as much time as those who don’t; I don’t know many women who can afford to take the full year off because of the 13 weeks unpaid at the end, and if – especially in London – you’re on a minimum wage salary it’s really unlikely you’ll be able to take that £100 cut a week to take weeks on end off work. It won’t happen. You’ll either quit work and move to benefits to care for your children, or you’ll go back earlier. Those who have generous company packages from private corporations can take longer, and they likely have higher pay and more savings anyway.

So, I think that due to a combination of slightly suspicious maths and leaving the part timers (likely the least well off) out of the equation, we can see that the article misses the point quite a lot.

But the comments miss the point even more.

Here are some of my favourite pet arguments against maternity laws, generally spouted by the kind of people who, basically, don’t want anyone to have children unless they’re super rich. And who routinely discriminate women because ‘it’s going to cost them’, even though, actually, it probably isn’t very much, if at all; so maybe really because they know that it’ll always be women having to have the babies so they can use that as an excuse to treat them badly.

1. “It’s gonna cost me.”

For big business, it doesn’t cost very much at all. The costs are easy enough to absorb, and they are usually able to offer better childcare so their employees come back earlier and they lose even less.

For small businesses it’s a bit trickier, because it’s harder to do without that member of the workforce (and therefore it becomes more likely someone has to be recruited to replace the missing mother). But it’s not quite as dreadful as it sounds because many employers can actually claim back most or all of the money they pay women on maternity leave from HMRC. If you have an NI bill of less than £45,000 p.a. you get the lot, and if it’s more than that you get 92%. My heart bleeds for that 8%, it really does. Especially in those situations where you’re not required to get in full-time or as highly paid replacements for the person who’s missing.

2. “I shouldn’t have to subsidise your lifestyle choice to have children”

We ALL subsidise the lifestyle choices of others. By funding the NHS, we pay for drug addicts, people who break bits doing dangerous sports, people who smoke themselves into hideous illnesses (although frankly they’re paying more too) and many more. But more to the point, children are actually a necessity. We like to blather on about how the world is overpopulated, but pretend that this is because of people having children when it’s actually more about people living longer (but expecting to retire at the same age). And when those people get old, their contributions aren’t nearly going to cover looking after themselves. Partly because they will never contribute enough but also because the government started spending the money about 10 years before they got it. Your contributions have gone – on health care, wars, helping the least well off, the Olympics – you name it. Kids are going to be paying for you to keep going.

And that’s before you even get to forgetting innovations in health care, technology and so on, because there’ll be no-one left to do it.

Oh, and while we’re on this subject, please stop it with the Natasha Kaplinski argument already. You need to be employed for 26 weeks before the 25th week of your pregnancy to be able to get Statutory Maternity Pay. As a freelancer or a brand new contract, Five didn’t owe her a damn thing they didn’t want to pay.

3. “Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them.”

Right, well, that’s only kids for the upper middle classes and super-rich then. I look forward to David Cameron’s kids being refuse collectors (a job which is extremely important and should be far more appreciated but, let’s face it, is rarely done by people worth millions).

These tend to be the exact same commenters who complain that all kids are semi-feral these days. Which apart from being nonsense means they want parents – sorry, just women, actually – to stay at home and bring them up well, but not to afford their mums (and, crucially, dads) to have some time off to get the job started properly.

The 20 weeks full pay plan is not ideal. It still only includes two weeks for dads, and while mums and dads don’t have the option to equally split leave between them – and, importantly, take that option – women will always be treated poorly in the workplace and employers will continue to discriminate because ‘it’ll cost them’ (apparently). Until we start seeing men as additional primary caregivers, women are in trouble.

The real problem is not the possible financial loss which is practical terms doesn’t actually happen. It is, as usual, the problem of misunderstandings and, at heart, misogyny.

Review: Bluestockings – The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education

Originally uttered in a faintly pejorative tone, a ‘Bluestocking’ was an 18th century literary luminary, an educated, intellectual woman. In
Bluestockings – The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, Jane Robinson reclaims the term and uses it to pull together an extraordinary tale of misogyny, determination, ambition and the quest for knowledge more than a century later.

In 1869, Emily Davis made history by creating a college for the first female undergraduates in England, in a house outside Cambridge. The lecturers were whoever could be persuaded to help out; the five students were not to actually be awarded degrees at the end of their courses. It would take two world wars before Cambridge allowed its female graduates to qualify, becoming the last university in England to do so – although it was the first English university to tolerate female students, after a fashion.

So what happened between 1869 and 1948?

Read the rest of the review at The F Word

I’m not a social media consultant (or a plastic bag)

Although I’m more than happy to consult. Does that make sense?

I’m a social media practitioner. A community builder. A conversation manager. A customer services spokesperson. I am the person who actually communicates with the public.

As a result I do, of course, have a lot of ideas about metric and strategy. It would be shortsighted and counterproductive in the extreme not to have a healthy grasp of the bigger picture. But I reject the word ‘consultant’ because there’s just so many people out there who belittle the task that the real consultants do. It’s hard work to win over the ditherers, give them case studies and examples to take back, support them with internal buy-in and then help them find their voice. These are real people, who just want to do the best for their business or charity, and seek guidance. So publishing a billion articles on ‘truths’ and ‘rules’ of social media is definitely unhelpful.

There’s only one social media ‘truth’ that applies to everyone, everywhere in every business (with the sole exception of parody / character accounts, and even then it partly applies): be honest. Be authentic. Be truthful and respect the bullshitometers of your readers.

I guess, really, I AM a consultant. But the word is almost as tainted as ‘feminist’ now (one of those, too. Old style, where you respect women, men and choices. I know, right?!). So what do I call myself without creating another meaningless or slightly spurious buzzword?