International Women’s Day 2017 – A Soundtrack

As each IWD comes to pass, I find myself more enamoured with the women in my life – friends, family, and acquaintances I admire from afar. They’re as reliable a support network as I could ever dream of having and my primary day to day inspiration. From friends who use their talents to promote the causes we share a passion for, to a mother who became my best friend in adulthood, my early 20s are proving to be happily woman-centric.

We are resilient, warm, and unapologetic (or working on it, if you’re me). We listen and we strive to cultivate an intersectional approach to not just our feminism but our lives – because really, they’re one and the same. We’re often too humble, admonishing our own instinctive lean towards modesty, but we are always learning to recognise our shortcomings and blind spots. To be emotional, and let that define us if we like, but also realise that it’s optional. We notice that as women we carry an innate hesitance to just say without disclaimer, to be perceived attaching authority to our opinions, and so we are driven to make a living from doing just that. Our arts and our sciences are essential, but they are not as effective a tool as our day to day solidarity.

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I was raised by a woman, but I was also raised by music. My dad was very musical, and I’m sure I absorbed some of that, but it played a smaller role in my mum’s life. This meant that after his passing, while my mum had her favourites (The Monkees, Meatloaf, and Al Green off the top of my head) I was in the musical driver’s seat. From a very young age I sought out the sounds and thoughts of those worlds away from me, feasting on any genre I had access to. In terms of what I liked, the requirements were about as loose as they are now: whether it was a beat that facilitated the many hours I would spend self-choreographing round the living room (this also hasn’t changed), lyrics that made sense of my confused preteen feelings, or opinions that I had never been exposed to, I wanted it all.

And so, while I attempt to carve out a place for myself as a writer, the most precious form of expression to me will always be music. I’m competent in a couple of instruments, but I’ve never had the guts to put my words to them, so my respect for those who do – and who do so successfully – is boundless. It’s a privilege to be able to indulge in the arts but some genres were also borne out of necessity, an avenue for minorities and working class people to escape the confines of poverty and oppression, giving a voice to the experiences of themselves and others like them.

That’s why it seems fitting to recognise International Women’s Day with a compilation of my favourite tracks celebrating womanhood. Some I have loved my whole life, while some are more recent discoveries. Some are widely respected and critically acclaimed, while the inclusion of others could almost certainly be effectively torn apart in longform by VICE. No matter, because the flavours of womanhood are limitless.

Please do let me know if you have any tracks to add, for I’m always on the look out.

Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.

 

Starting off with a classic. Queen Latifah defiantly touches on misogyny, cat calling, domestic violence and her experiences as a black woman at the hands of men in her community.

 

Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl

 

No feminist music collection can be complete without recognising the riot grrrl movement, particularly if you grew up on punk rock. ‘When she talks, I hear the revolution/In her hips, there’s revolutions/When she walks, the revolution’s coming/In her kiss, I taste the revolution.’

 

 

Christina Aguilera – Can’t Hold Us Down

 

This was, if my memory serves me, the very first song to put feminism on my radar. I adored Christina and remember using pocket money to buy a copy of Stripped, which I kept on rotation in our living room stereo for years. At such a young age I couldn’t fully comprehend the microaggressions being referred to on this track, on-the-nose as it is, but the overall message is one that stuck with me. ‘So what am I not supposed to have an opinion?/Should I be quiet just because I’m a woman?/Call me a bitch ’cause I speak what’s on my mind/Guess it’s easier for you to swallow if I sat and smiled.’

 

 

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

 

From one of the most important punk rock albums of our time. Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as a trans woman didn’t transform the scene which likes to think of itself as more progressive than it is, but hell did she have an impact. As well as being a bloody great band, Laura’s activism for trans and feminist causes means that Against Me! is more punk than you could ever dream of being. Should be required listening for anyone claiming to be intersectional. ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made/.’

 

Jhené Aiko – Spotless Mind

 

I’m a huge fan of Jhené, and this track really speaks to me in terms of self acceptance and emotional growth. Combined with the video, it reassures me that as a woman I have the right to be whoever I want to be, in as many different ways as I like and in as many different ways as I can’t yet predict. ‘Shame on me for changing? Shame on you for staying the same.’

 

Kimya Dawson – I Like Giants

 

A voice and style immediately recognisable to those of us who went through a Moldy Peaches phase – or saw a few minutes of Juno – this is a typically lovely track about perspective and self worth. A reassuring rub on the shoulder in sonic form. ‘I like giants, especially girl giants/’Cause all girls feel too big sometimes, regardless of their size.’

 

 

Beyoncé – ***Flawless

 

Well obviously. With feminism woven into all of her output these days, I could really pick any Yoncé track from the last two albums – but this is certainly the most blatant, with an excerpt monologue from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in case you didn’t get the message the first thousand times. It’s Bey’s world and we’re living in it. (This is also why she won’t appear on the playlist I put together alongside this post – if it’s Tidal or bust, I’m out.)

 

Paramore – Ain’t It Fun

 

This track’s message might not be overtly feminist (check out Anklebiters which definitely fits the bill), but of this list it’s probably closest to my heart for how it continues to help me embrace emotional resilience. Its dry-witted musings never grow stale or irrelevant, and I dare say that my generation (specifically girls of the alt-music persuasion) would be very different had we not grown up in Hayley’s shadow, despite her missteps along the way. It’s unfortunate that she stands relatively alone as a woman of her level of success in the genre, but she is phenomenal. ‘Ain’t it fun living in the real world? Ain’t it good being all alone?’

 

 

Salt-N-Pepa – None of Your Business

 

Another early ’90s classic, this track calls out the double standards of perceived promiscuity before ‘slut shaming’ appeared in a single think piece. It even features a message of support for sex workers, even if lacking in nuance. ‘If I want to take a guy home with me tonight, it’s none of your business/And if she wants to be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business.’

 

Sleater-Kinney – #1 Must Have

 

Another band to grow out of the riot grrrl movement, this track sees Sleater-Kinney decry the watering down of feminism in the name of capitalism and marketing – a grievance which is no less relevant today, nearly two decades after its release. ‘And I think that I sometimes might have wished/For something more than to be a size six/But now my inspiration rests/In-between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills.’

 

Lauryn Hill – Doo-Wop (That Thing)

 

A treasure of hip hop and neo-soul, it seems apt to end with Lauryn Hill and this anthem for female confidence. Detailing the difficulties of relationships and the additional burdens carried by women, Hill insists: ‘Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem, baby girl.’

 

 

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Dying with Dignity

Originally published as a feature in Qmunicate Magazine, Nov 2014.

The death of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old Californian, has reopened dialogue on the seemingly controversial issue of assisted suicide. Having been diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma (a devastating form of brain cancer), she made the decision to move to Oregon in order to make use of the state’s Death with Dignity Act and passed away peacefully on October 1st surrounded by her husband, friends, and family. Her decision has since made headlines globally and served as a reminder that this is an issue which will rear its head again and again until significant changes are made. Meanwhile, Friday saw the unanimous acceptance by the House of Lords of an amendment to the current assisted dying bill, signifying a substantial move towards changes in the existing law. The Scottish Green Party co-convener, Patrick Harvie, has also recently spoken of his taking on of responsibility for the Assisted Suicide Bill in Holyrood following Margo MacDonald’s death.
Dr Kailash Chand, the deputy chair of the British Medical Association, said: “The present law definitely needs changing. It discriminates… We currently have a two-tier system – one for the people who have the resources and money to go to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and another for the majority of people who don’t have the resources or money.”
It is difficult to approach this from an unemotional standpoint; for a situation that is literally life or death, it can seem trivialised by being reduced to debate etiquette and practicality. Those who oppose the passing of laws permitting assisted dying could argue their case using this very reason – surely a government should not condone acts of such significance if they could be based on anything other than cold, hard fact? Such a thought process may hold some merit, but not enough to surpass the importance of what the conversation should come down to: autonomy.
Legislation is put in place to protect and assist citizens, but it should not be implemented to infantilise them. Personal autonomy should be maximised as far as possible without infringing on the rights of others and this should include an individual’s power to end their painful suffering with grace. To deny someone this is to tell them that they can’t be trusted with a decision of such gravity, and that their right to die with dignity is outweighed by the challenges involved in the creation of such delicate legislation. Instead, we hear of people diagnosed with terminal illnesses who felt forced to take their lives themselves earlier than they otherwise would have had they been comfortable in the knowledge that they could receive assistance and not leave their loved ones to potential prosecution, never mind societal persecution.
That’s not to say that said challenges don’t hold any weight. The question of contradiction in medical professionals’ duty is a relevant one, at least in terms of public perception. But is that really a strong enough argument to deny all patients the right to control? As receivers of care – and it is worth noting that we have access to first-rate palliative care in this country, though it’s not enough – we must ask ourselves if a doctor who is obliged to treat patients with compassion and understanding is genuinely of less integrity than one whose main responsibility includes keeping people alive at all costs despite their wishes, a rather simplistic approach to medical ethics.
There must, of course, be tight regulation to ensure absolutely no coercion in each case and strict assessment to determine mental competence. This almost seems a given – you’d be hard-pressed to find an advocate for assisted dying who wants the process to be an unregulated free-for-all. Yes, the cold and sterile language surrounding the issue which can seem off-putting is certainly necessary, but it shouldn’t stifle the humanitarian needs of the terminally ill.
There is disparity in our allowance of terminally ill patients to refuse care and our drawing a line at giving them the freedom to decide how far their suffering goes. In 2014, nearly 70% of the UK public polled in support of reforms to assisted dying – change which is beginning to appear inevitable. Barbara Coombs Lee, the president of the non-profit organisation Compassion & Choices, said that Brittany Maynard asked people to do three things: “Number one: love life; number two: love each other; and number three: make end of life choice available.” This is an issue caught between kindness and governmental legislation; we must find the correct balance to benefit our terminally ill patients.

Botched Oklahoma Execution Stirs International Outrage

Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine.

 

On Tuesday 29th April 2014, an execution by the US state of Oklahoma was gruesomely botched, sparking online outcry as disturbing details of the incident were leaked to social media by members of the press. Clayton Lockett, 38, was convicted in 2000 of the kidnap and shooting of 19 year old Stephanie Neiman during a home invasion before watching on as his accomplices buried her alive, and was sentenced to die by lethal injection. His execution date had been set for March but was delayed as his lawyers entered a court battle for the right to information on the cocktail of drugs the state planned to use to ensure the inmate’s death would not be unconstitutional, citing the Eighth Amendment’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause.  The law suit proved unsuccessful as Oklahoma’s Supreme Court decided sufficient information had been provided, and lifted Lockett’s stay.
Medical officials searched for a suitable vein for 51 minutes as Lockett lay on the gurney before settling for injecting the drugs into the groin area; the screen was then lifted for witnesses to observe the proceedings. Lockett was pronounced unconscious, but soon began to writhe around on the table, gasping for air and attempting to speak. It took a further 21 minutes for officials to discover that the inmate’s vein had collapsed, preventing the drugs from entering his body properly. The execution was called off and plans made for the inmate to be transferred to hospital for resuscitation, but he suffered a heart attack and passed away before said plans could be put into motion – nearly an hour after the execution had begun. Lockett’s treatment was ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ under international law, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesperson.
The three-drug cocktail purchased and used by Oklahoma was untested (and, in some states, banned from use on animals). The purchase of drugs to be used for execution is a process proving increasingly challenging for the 32 states which still hand down the death penalty (which is still a punishment under federal law) as pharmaceutical companies, particularly in Europe, adhere to new regulations prohibiting the sale of drugs for capital punishment purposes, with an industry-wide held belief that to do so would be to allow misuse of medicines developed to safeguard patients’ wellbeing. States are now choosing to turn to ‘compound pharmacies’, which are not subject to federal supervision, and some states have laws in place ruling that full disclosure of the nature and origin of drugs obtained is not required.
The events surrounding Clayton Lockett’s final hours sparked outrage internationally and amplified the discussion of inequality facing potential death row residents. According to a recent study at the University of Washington, jurors in the state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. In addition, 77% of cases in which defendants received the death penalty involved white murder victims with only 15% of death sentences handed out to defendants whose victims were black, despite the numbers of victims in crimes committed being equal. Many claim the death penalty to discriminate against poorer defendants as the quality of one’s afforded legal representation is likely to be reflected in the outcome of the case. It can confidently be said, then, that this intersection of race and class, disproportionately represented in the USA’s criminal justice system, is certainly reflected in the courtrooms touched by capital punishment. It is worth noting, too, that over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the USA since 1973.
The death penalty for murder was abolished in Britain in 1965 and no further executions have been carried out since, despite it remaining an option in cases of treason and certain military offences (e.g. mutiny) until its full abolition in 1998. According to opinion polls carried out on UK citizens, approximately half support the reintroduction of the death penalty for general murder cases, with slightly more in favour in cases involving children or police officers.
The family of Clayton Lockett has expressed their hope of closure for his victim’s family, as well as confirming that they are examining their options for a civil lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma for the failed execution. LaDonna Hollins, Lockett’s 56 year old stepmother, said: ‘We are not to torture people to death. Not thrashing and convulsing. That makes them no better than the murder he committed. That makes us in Oklahoma look like savages. Come on, America. Look at this.’

Poverty porn demonises working class

Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine, January 2014.

 

A recent onslaught of petitions, think-pieces and angry tweets inspired by Channel 4’s latest creation, Benefit Street, has raised questions regarding the scrutiny and presentation of the working class in the media. The provoc-umentary series – which a Channel 4 spokesperson described as a “sympathetic, human and objective portrayal of how people are coping with continuing austerity and cuts in benefits” – portrays the residents of Birmingham’s underprivileged James Turner Street as they navigate the welfare system, fall repeatedly into criminal habits and endure altercations between their neighbours. While the second episode in the series fetched Channel 4’s highest viewer ratings in a year with nearly 5 million people tuning in, it also garnered almost 400 complaints to Ofcom from viewers concerned by the further demonisation of portions of the population who are struggling in the current economic climate and others outraged by the less-than-subtle depiction of criminal activity such as drug dealing and shoplifting.
The residents, too, were unhappy with their portrayal in the programme, claiming to have been duped into appearing on the show and misled regarding its premise. Dee Roberts, a support worker who features regularly on Benefit Street, said: “They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust.” When asked about the impression given to residents by the show’s producers, she reported: “They said they wanted to film for a TV show about how great community spirit is in the street and how we all help each other out on a daily basis. I participated in the show on that belief, but this programme has nothing to do with community, which you can tell from the title. It makes people out as complete scum.” Claiming that footage was edited so as to alter the true nature of events, Roberts complained that a sequence showing her walking along the street while pointing out which residents were and weren’t employed was manipulated to completely remove any mention of residents who were, in fact, in work. Many have spoken up about their belief that productions like Benefit Street serve only to further vilify the working class (and encourage xenophobia thanks to its portrayal of Eastern Europeans searching for work) in times of growing poverty and a widening gap between the highest and lowest earners.
In the midst of this controversy, Labour leader Ed Miliband has spoken publicly about a crisis being faced by middle class families. Miliband wrote in The Telegraph that Labour would “rebuild our middle class”, and that “our country cannot succeed and become collectively better off unless Britain has a strong and vibrant middle class. Indeed, the greatest challenge for our generation is how to tackle a crisis in living standards that has now become a crisis of confidence for middle-class families.” This has been met with some confusion and anger as belief that the struggles of the working class are being snubbed continues to intensify – the number of people requiring the help of Trussell Trust food banks tripled in just a year with over 350,000 – including children and some facing difficulty following cuts or delays in benefits – attending food banks between April-September 2013.
Even food banks have been under attack in the media recently with former Conservative MP Edwina Currie questioning the necessity of food banks in the UK during a recent BBC Radio Stoke appearance. She stated that much of the poorer population see their money go to tattoos and caring for their pets rather than providing for themselves. She then took her views to Twitter, where she said: “Some councils are diverting money from services into food banks. I think this is crazy – a real abrogation of responsibility,” And “how do we solve people’s problems? Not by giving them a can of soup and saying there, there.”
Echoing a sentiment shared by many in the face of a wealthy minority growing ever more out of touch with the reality of families living on the poverty line, Labour MP Chris Bryant, the Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, tweeted in response: “Edwina Currie hasn’t the foggiest idea how ordinary people live their lives but resorts to crude judgementalism. Sad.”

Mental illness stigma furthered by The Sun

Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine, Nov 2013.

The Sun caused a stir recently when it ran a front page headline claiming that mental patients are responsible for well over a thousand deaths in the past decade. The 7th October issue investigation was titled, ’1,200 killed by mental patients’, before going on to brand its findings ‘disturbing’ and declaring a crisis in the mental health care system and its handling of high-risk patients. The article’s source is research by University of Manchester academics (who have since accused the publication of misrepresenting their findings), but many outraged readers, charity leaders and MPs believe that The Sun is adding to the stigmatisation of mental illness in society.
The Sun’s managing editor Stephen Abell took to twitter to defend the piece, marking it as a ‘call for better communication between agencies’. The content of the article, however, has been largely acknowledged as outweighed by the potentially damaging front page headline. Mental health campaigners blame the false link between mental illness and violence as one of the many contributing factors to the wide-spread misunderstanding of mental illness; something which, many claim, is being strongly reinforced by The Sun’s actions.
The issue has been widely discussed in recent times after public outcry forced Tesco, Asda and Amazon to pull offensive ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ Halloween costumes from the shelves. Asda’s £20 ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costume featured a straitjacket covered in blood and pictured the character wielding a knife, while Tesco’s outfit consisted of an orange jumpsuit with ‘committed’ stamped across the back. Amazon traders also carried a wide array of ‘psycho’ costumes. Both supermarkets revoked the products immediately and offered apologies as well as a £25,000 donation from Asda to the charity Mind, of which Stephen Fry is the president, in an attempt to compensate for the ‘unacceptable error’.
The response to the costumes across social media was huge. Many Twitter users who suffer from poor mental health began to post pictures of themselves alongside the hashtag ‘#mentalpatientcostume’ to demonstrate the inaccuracy of the stereotypes enhanced by the fancy dress costumes. 1 in 4 adults in the UK will experience poor mental health at some point in their lives and suicide rates are the highest in a decade. According to the chief executive of mental health charity SANE Marjorie Wallace, the retailers’ perpetration of stereotypes could be ‘leaving those already struggling with mental health problems more lonely and excluded’.
In recent years, the open discussion of mental illness has become more widely accepted, believed by many to be crucial in the treatment of and general attitude towards the mentally ill. Incidents such as The Sun’s headline and offensive fancy dress costumes, however, have been labelled as a step backwards. The realities of illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder still go widely unacknowledged despite progress. With ‘OCD’ and ‘schizo’ quickly becoming casual parts of vocabulary used to describe anything but the often life-ruining conditions, many wonder if the fight against this ignorance is futile.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there – Miley Cyrus has continued to make headlines after an insensitive jibe at Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor’s battle with mental illness. O’Connor’s divisive open letter to Cyrus regarding her recent behaviour was quickly overshadowed when they were met with a tweet stating, ‘Before Amanda Bynes… There was…’ to which a selection of old tweets were attached, consisting of O’Connor, who suffers from bipolar disorder, appearing to ask for psychiatric help. 27 year old actress Amanda Bynes was hospitalised earlier this year following a very public deterioration of mental wellbeing. While the 20 year old’s mockery of mental illness quickly changed the minds of many who had been defending her, some of her more passionate fans took it upon themselves to send death threats to O’Connor, even urging her to commit suicide. She requested an apology from Cyrus, to herself and Bynes as well as ‘all sufferers of mental health difficulties and all those who have had experience of suicidal feelings or who had been affected by suicide’ – a request which went ignored.
While this regular reinforcement of the stigma surrounding mental illness is being met with more and more opposition, it remains to be seen if this will be enough to bring an end to such ignorance in the media.