Up Front by Emma Hart

149

Well, Read Women

Frequently, men write to Captain Awkward complaining that they can't get women to go out with them. One of her staple pieces of advice for them is 'consume art by women'. This might seem like a fairly strange bit of dating advice, but it serves two purposes. One, it's something they can do, themselves, that isn't dependent on other people. Two, it's about seeing women as people, and seeing things from their perspective. 

Works by men, with male protagonists, dominate popular culture. We all grow up on stories and messages where men go out and do great deeds and they rescue and/or win the love of women. They pursue women. They acquire women as decorative objects. If you aren’t good at acquiring these objects you are a loser or a failure. These are the messages you are swimming in, and they are affecting your life.

 

Take love poetry. When written by men, women are the objects of men's desire. I mean 'objects' in the grammatical sense. So, "he sees her": 'he' is the subject of the verb, she is the object. Only subjects can do things, objects can only have things done to them. Women become passive. Christopher Marlowe wrote The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, a famous piece of male longing after an uncooperative woman. The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd was also written by a man, Sir Walter Raleigh. Even when women did get to speak, it was with men's voices. 

"Hold on, Emma, that's a bit heteronormative, isn't it?" Good, I'm pleased you noticed, a lot of people didn't. And yeah, the broader message is, consume art by as many different kinds of people, listen to as many voices, as you can. Sometimes those voices can be hard to find. The thing about "read books by women" is that it's easy. It's actually easier than avoiding reading books by women, if you're a reader. I can't actually fathom how people do that. Every time you go into a bookshop or a library, there they are, hundreds of books by women. Yet I know there are men who only read books by men, because I've met them, spoken to them, been whined at by them. 

Women have been writing novels since before novels really existed. They helped shape the form. There has never been a time when you couldn't find novels by women. It can be hard to find movies written or directed by women, or television under women's creative control, but it's never been hard to find novels by female authors. If you read, there really is no excuse for not reading women. 

And yet. Some men get so upset. They're not sexist! The fact they hardly ever read books by women is just a matter of taste. Or accident. Or women don't write the kind of books they like to read. 

I have read the odd book by woman authors(sic) but they have failed to inspire the loyalty I feel towards writers like Saul Bellow, Henry Millar and David Foster Wallace, some of whom have no doubt been criticised for being chauvanists of the highest order. I like Zadie Smith but she does not come close to a cigar.

No, I have no idea what that last sentence means either. 

So, some common objections. Yes, J.K. Rowling 'counts'. She counts as 'a woman'. I said, books by women. Fortunately, no female author carries the burden of being required to speak for all women. Part of the point of the exercise is realising that women are all different, and have vastly different opinions and points of view.   

No, the fact that I can't name a woman off the top of my head who writes exactly the sub-sub-genre that's apparently all you'll read does not invalidate any of this. That's not my job, it's yours. Like urban fantasy? Look for an anthology like this. Maybe you'll find a female writer in there. But it really, really isn't my job, or any woman's job, to find them for you. 

Yes, there are men who write women very well. Yes, there are women who write women very badly. How is that relevant? I'm not saying women are better writers than men. 

In fact, I'll let you in on a little secret. It's not really about whether you read women. I mean, you should, and I'm going to raise an eyebrow and probably not sleep with you if there are no books by women on your shelves. It's really about how you react when you're asked to read books by women. It's a very small thing. Try reading only female authors for a month, just a month. If that seems like a ridiculous, onerous task, an unreasonable request that should never be made, there may be a problem. If you find the implicit accusation of sexism to be the Worst Thing in the World, it's probably dead on the mark. 

53

Not Uniform

This is one of my kids' class photos from primary school. You may notice that everyone is dressed the same. I'm not big on uniform, as you may know, but if a school has to have one, this is a good model. Track pants, polo shirt, sweatshirt. It was cheap, a big factor at a Decile 3 school. It was practical, easy to move around in, didn't require a separate sport uniform, and accommodated the needs of the school's Muslim families. 

It was also gender-neutral. 

I'm not sure why the suggestion on uniforms has been plucked out of the Ministry of Education's new sexuality education guidelines as the hot issue. I'm even less sure why people thought we should care what Bob McCoskrie thought about it. It's a perfectly easy and reasonable thing to do. You don't say "girls can wear trousers and boys can wear skirts", you just have one uniform, with trousers, which are unisex wear in most cultures. Then you can stop worrying about how short the girls' skirts are, and girls can bike to school without getting their ridiculous box-pleated kilts caught in their wheels. 

The underlying premise of the new guidelines is that all students, of whatever gender or sexual identity, should feel safe at school. They're about removing discrimination from school practices. We stop pretending that we don't have gay, bi, lesbian, trans* and intersex kids in our schools, and start protecting them. 

Of 8000 New Zealand secondary students questioned, 1.2% identified as trans*, and 2.5& as 'unsure'. Even if you take a low '1 in 100' rate of trans* pupils, that means the odds are there are a couple in every state school. It's not ridiculous to accommodate them, it's ridiculous to go on pretending they don't exist. 

The MinEdu guidelines think it would be a good idea if they had somewhere safe to go to the toilet. 

The section on 'whole of school engagement', which appears to be the only page many reporters have had time to read, recommends: 

 - schools consider gender-neutral options when uniform code comes up for review 

 - reviewing options around toileting facilities so all students have choices of safe spaces 

 - schools should demonstrate valuing diversity by allowing same-sex partners at school events such as balls 

 - sports procedures and practices should allow participation of all students, regardless of gender or sexual identity. They should combat bullying. All extra-curricular activities should be open to all students. 

 - bullying involving gendered or homophobic slurs should be recorded specifically and separately and monitored. 

The suggested changes to uniform code seem to be the least controversial of those proposals. Consider the impact of those changes to sport practices. (At my co-ed high school, we were never divided by gender for PE, but we played soccer, hockey and volleyball, never rugby, cricket, or netball.) 

The really scary stuff is right in the curriculum. 

All young people need access to information and opportunities to think about, question, and discuss issues related to relationships, gender, sexual identities, sexual orientation, sexual behaviour, sexual and reproductive health, and societal messages. Sexuality education provides a framework in which this can happen.

This is not 'how to not make babies'. For instance, at Years 4-6 (upper primary school): 

They will describe how social messages and stereotypes about relationships, sexuality, and gender affect well-being, and will actively affirm the rights of themselves and others. They will identify risks and issues in online and social media environments and question messages related to gender, sexuality, and diversity. 

This is not so much "but a 'boy' might wear a skirt!" as "We may teach your nine year old to smash the patriarchy, okay?" Imagine, trendy lefty liberals, sending your kids to school and not having them coming home with a whole bunch of gender-conforming sexist bullshit. 

By Years 9-10 (early high school): 

Programmes will affirm sexual diversity and gender identity. Students will learn about the physical and emotional effects of sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual maturation. Students will critique dominant cultural messages about sexual behaviour (including those in mass and online media) and identify skills for positive and supportive intimate relationships. Human rights, consent, and the importance of choice and agency in relationships will be discussed. 

Imagine the PE teacher at whatever over-privileged single-sex rugby-head school comes to mind "affirming sexual diversity and gender identity". 

I could go on, or I could let those of you who care read the report yourselves. There's only one place where I have a serious problem with this whole thing: it's not compulsory. The schools who will do this will be the schools who would do it anyway. 

Schools are required to consult with their 'communities' about sexuality education every two years. Consultation isn't defined, in terms of form or duration. The report does note that consultation does not require agreement, and that parents can opt their children out of sexuality classes. (It's opt-out, not opt-in.) It's the school's job to find a way of balancing the curriculum with the 'values' of their community. It's just as well it's not my job, because I would always say, "The rights of the students to safety, respect, and quality information are paramount. Suck it." 

159

Stand for... Something

Recently, I was Pub-Talking to an acquaintance, an American guy who's been living in New Zealand for a few years now. One of the things that really struck him about New Zealand was our lack of patriotism. You see it on ANZAC Day, he said, but where is it the rest of the time? 

I mulled this for a while after I staggered home, because I think it's a more interesting question than it seems on the face of it. Stripped of its jingoism, patriotism is 'pride in your country'. I think it also extends to an idea of a national character, and pride in that. 

Our pride in our country isn't militaristic, and why would it be? We've always gone into wars as followers. When we do talk about our military history, we concentrate on defeats. This is both a tipper to our national character, and part of the reason our patriotism is invisible to an American lens. Those days when we're told we should be celebrating our country, ANZAC Day and Waitangi Day, are days many of us find complex and conflicted, and there's nothing wrong with that. 

That doesn't mean we don't have a strong sense of national pride, most visible when it's offended. Try telling anyone my age that Split Enz is an Australian band. Leave us off maps. Pavlova. Flat whites. He might have had a point when he said, "The things you do get upset about are so stupid." 

Here's the essential conflict, I think. We're pretty proud of our national character, mythological as it is. But part of that character is being Humble, so we can't ever mouth off about how great we are because part of being a Kiwi being great is not mouthing off about things. Not like those fucking Aussies. This tweet of Stephen Judd's from the Cricket World Cup about sums it up perfectly for me. 

 We're not those arseholes abusing batsmen when we get them out, and we don't want to be. 

This also comes with a sense of fair play, the idea that if we're going to kick someone, we kick up. We're proud of punching above our weight, after all. We were the first country to give women the vote (technically), and no matter their politics people seem proud of that. So too the nuclear ships ban, majestically giving the fingers to a world super-power. Not everybody cried all over their faces at the singing in Parliament after marriage equality passed, but give it a few more years, and it'll be one of those things almost everyone is proud we did. 

These are not, still, my favourite things about our national character. A couple of years back, I took great pride in doing something that to me epitomised what it means to be a New Zealander. I had a conversation, on Twitter, with the leader of a major political party, about giant robot dinosaur vaginas. (There are no prizes for guessing which leader it was.) We live in a country where she could have that conversation, publically, with no repercussions. We also live in a country where she could be the kind of person who would have that conversation. 

So, with the flag debate comes a discussion of our national character. Standfor.co.nz was supposed to provide a forum for that discussion; who are we? In a way, completely unintentionally, it's done that. In typical New Zealand social media subversion, the site is now displaying hundreds of messages basically saying that changing the flag is a fucking stupid idea. The flag design submission process has been similarly undermined, because that is who we are. As a country, we are giggling up the back of the class because we think you're a dick. I love that about us. 

In the end, though, I'm just another middle-aged middle-class Pakeha shaping my view of New Zealandness through the filter of my own experience. Does the way the internet allows us to group in communities of interest rather than geography undermine a sense of nationhood, or highlight national differences? Is our major source of recent pride that we've made John Oliver practice his New Zild accent? Are we too divided for there to be any point in having this conversation? 

 

Also, America? We are way better at democracy than you. Sorry. 

101

Reviewing the Election

Let me be frank about something that will probably shortly become obvious anyway: I have something of a crush on the Electoral Commission. Recently, they released their report into the 2014 election. I spent an afternoon reading it and tweeting about it, and about three days boring people solid talking about it. Luckily for you, I have a blog. 

The major area to be addressed, of course, is declining voter participation. This isn't a trend unique to New Zealand, as this graph makes clear.

 

You might also think that graph says something about compulsory voting, but that's not mentioned at all in the review. Participation in 2014 was up slightly on 2011, which is encouraging. However, the number of eligible people not enrolled to vote is estimated at 250,700, up from 147,200 in 2008. The groups least likely to enrol and/or vote are Pasifika, Asian, and young people. 

The problem with young people's engagement turns out to be a bit more complex, and a bigger problem, than you might have thought. It's not that 18-25 year olds don't vote. It's that they don't vote, and when they're 25-30 year olds they still don't vote, and when they're 30-35 year olds, they keep on not voting. They establish a pattern of not voting, and carry it through their lives. Meanwhile, new groups of non-voting young people keep coming along, and the percentage of the population voting goes down, and down, and down... 

The report mentions a number of things the Commission has already done to try to encourage people to vote. This includes a Kids Voting program, which apparently ran in 556 schools. I found this a bit disappointing, because in my frequently-expressed-while-drinking opinion, civics education was the key. Get young people excited about being able to vote. Don't let that pattern of not-voting get established. 

The Commission has no specific recommendations for future new action on this problem, past stating it requires a "whole of government approach". Still, this is the first election that the Commission have been actively involved in motivational messaging as well as informational, and perhaps the pay-off is still to come. 

The main reasons non-voters gave for not voting in post-election surveys were: “lack of interest in voting” (27%), other personal reasons such as health and religious reasons or being away from home (22%); “didn’t know who to vote for” (11%); and “other commitments” (10%). Only 3% gave a reason of not knowing how, when or where to vote. Only 2% said it was because the voting place was too far away and they did not have transport. This indicates that it is less about institutional barriers and more about lack of interest or motivation to vote and the need to encourage people to value their vote.

There are many other smaller points of significant note in the review. You know that thing where people can vote for weeks before the election, but advertising is only restricted on election day? They've noticed how weird that is, and would like it looked at. The number of people advance voting is now so high (29%) that the whole way we run and regulate elections needs to be reviewed. For instance, under current law, scrutineers are banned from, say, wearing t-shirts with "Vote [Party]" slogans on them on election day, but not in advance polling booths before election day. Nor are there any restrictions on how close to advance voting booths campaigning is allowed. Discussing this is one of the many, many places the Commission has noticeably not used the phrase "this is fucking stupid". 

The Commission would also like the laws on Treating, and on election advertising and satire, reviewed. " The application of these provisions raises difficult issues regarding freedom of expression." They would like to change the way parties are allocated funding for opening and closing addresses, as (to paraphrase) no fucker watches them, and the money could probably be better spent on some Facebook ads or something. 

The section on voter expectations is an example of why I find the Commission so fabulous they're probably brunette and have an opinion on the Oxford comma. It's not about changing voters' expectations, it's about how they can meet them. 

For instance, many Special Votes are disallowed because the voter is not enrolled (95% of disallowed Special Votes). People not enrolled to vote who have cast a Special Vote assume that, in that process, they were enrolled to vote. So, says the Commission, why not change it so that casting a Special Vote at one election means you're enrolled to vote at the next? In fact, is there any reason why, when someone goes into a polling booth, advance or not, we couldn't just enrol them? 

Also, given growing concerns about privacy, is there any particular reason we publish electoral rolls and make them available for purchase? Some people who don't meet the threshold for the unpublished roll don't enrol because they don't want their details made public. " The Commission recommends that electoral rolls (and habitation indexes) no longer be available for general sale, that the inspection of rolls should be limited to offices of the Commission, and that house/flat/apartment number and occupation information should no longer be included in rolls available for inspection." 

The Commission believes that people should be able to change from the General to the Maori roll every electoral cycle, and that this option could be offered when packs are sent out for people to check their enrolment details. The delay in the last Census made the restriction on changing rolls worse than usual, but even under normal circumstances, is there really any justification for it? 

" The Government has indicated that e-voting for parliamentary elections will not be a priority for 2017." So the Commission, while noting they will study overseas developments, has not considered electronic voting. 

Nonetheless, something interesting has happened with overseas voting. The Commission noted that in 2011, overseas voting had dropped significantly because, and I shit you not, people were having trouble accessing the requisite fax machines. 

Fax machines. 

So now, if you're overseas and not voting from somewhere like the Embassy in London, you can download a ballot paper, print it out, fill it in, scan it, and upload it. The Commission reported no security issues with this system, used by over 22 000 people, and few technical issues not caused by a Browser Which Shall Remain Nameless. 

This column is getting too long for reading, and I haven't even touched on the Commission's award-winning work on providing secret voting for visually-impaired people. I can only touch on the substance of the report: you guys get in there, dig stuff out, and let's talk. I'm off to find out what the Electoral Commission's favourite martini style is, because I bet they have one. 

36

Mind Your Language

I have to admit, I had some mixed emotions when I heard Clean Reader had been taken off the market. Delight, because the app was ridiculously stupid. Sadness, because it was hilariously stupid. I still think it's worth talking about Clean Reader because it highlights a few pertinent stupid things about censorship. 

Basically, the idea was that if people wanted to read good, classic books but didn't want to read all the nasty swears and stuff, there should gosh-darned be a way to do that. If you bought a book through the Clean Reader shop, it would replace all the Rude Words with nicer, cuddlier, more wholesome words. 

Now you might think this isn't really censorship, and what does it matter? It's voluntary: only people who wanted to read books this way were going to. Where's the harm? 

We start with this idea that some words, in and of themselves, are bad. Offensive. And that removing those words, and leaving the underlying ideas they express intact, solves the problem. 

Let me tell you about my personal experience of how mad this is. I once had a boss who believed this, and set our on-line writing forum's Prude Controls to maximum. Anything it thought was a naughty word – starting at 'damn' – would be removed and replaced with '#$%&*'. Whether you'd said 'fuck' or you'd said 'damn', it would come out as '#$%&*', which, and here's the start of the problem, always looks like 'fuck'. Also, the filter had, as they very often do, the Scunthorpe Problem. So bars had  #$%&*tails and planes had #$%&*pits, and if you read that as 'fuckpits', you can see how much more fun I was getting out of the filter than my boss was. 

At the same time, the slogan of the virtual 'entertainment facility' I was running, "A proud tradition of customer servicing", got through just fine. You don't need much ability with language to know that you can say the filthiest things using only the most cromulent words. 

Clean Reader also has the 'everything looks like 'fuck'' problem: sometimes it makes things ruder than they were to start with. All words for female genitalia are on the scarily-long list of things that Clean Reader replaces with "bottom". "Vagina" becomes "bottom". In Clean Reader, all sex is anal sex. 

And yes, the correct scientific terminology for naughty bits (you should watch The Naughty Bits, you really should) gets censored just as hard as the nastiest slang terms. 'Clitoris' also becomes 'bottom'. All terms for male genitalia are replaced with 'groin'. Imagine the effect on any kind of sex education. Blanket censorship has always taken out sex manuals and contraceptive advice, and one of censorship's greatest voices considered that a feature, not a bug. 

Take a minute, too, to ponder the implications of a vocabulary that leaves you no possible way of expressing the concept of 'clitoris'. You're not just removing the word, but the idea. It's like sex education from the 80s. 

But here's where Clean Reader really fell down, apparently to the great surprise of its creators. Authors, notably Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig, were Not Happy. What Clean Reader does is Bowdlerisation. It doesn't just remove words, it replaces them with other words, words the author didn't write. Bowdler removed Ophelia's suicide from Hamlet, as being too disturbing for children. In the process, he removed the idea that Hamlet's revenge-obsessed behaviour had serious negative consequences for other people. If you hack about Shakespeare's plays, changing words and indeed whole incidents, to what extent are they still Shakespeare's plays? 

And I know it probably seems quaint and precious and selfish these days for authors to want to control their works. But this is vandalism. 

The kind of vocabulary characters use is part of the way writers define them as characters. If characters from The Wire start talking like they're in Famous Five books – "Gosh darnit, what the freaking heck is that freak doing here?" – they have become different characters. Less plausible characters. Completely freaking ridiculous characters. Language, including apparently 'rude' language, gives atmosphere. It can create tension. Words are all writers have. So I'm thinking the way Clean Reader says the mother of a puppy is a 'witch', and chickens have 'chests' is a whole lot less funny when it's your book being freaked in the jerk*.

 

* Yes, 'arsehole' is one of the few words that doesn't become 'bottom'. I love this so much.