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V is for Virgin (Alphabet b-sides and rarities)

2013 June 3
by Hodge

Hodge-note: This rather special item from the archives was originally #22 in the Alphabet series, and got mostly written (and illustrated) before I heard the siren song of vitriol instead, with its rich murder and rage connotations. Vitriol was duly inducted into the Alphabet official rankings and Virgin languished like a vestal until we thought maybe she should see the light of day…

Here she is:



And your quaint honour turn to dust
And into ashes all my lust…

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress c.1640s

Virgin has a comparatively straightforward etymology: it derives from the Latin virgo (= ‘maiden’), whence the star-sign Virgo (apparently the sign of the shy, modest and meticulous, with a dash of perfectionism and anxiety). Its first sense (c.1200) is an ecclesiastical one: ‘an unmarried or chaste maiden or women, distinguished for piety or steadfastness in religion, and regarded as having a special place among the members of the Christian church on account of these merits.’

Like a virgin

Saint Lucy, with her eyes, as depicted in 1521

Saint Lucy, with her eyes, as depicted in 1521

There are innumerable such virgins in Christian hagiography: Saint Ursula had an army of 11,000 virgin handmaids who all had their heads chopped off (in a bit of a pun-fail); Saint Cecilia (patron saint of music) managed not only to persuade her husband to forbear on their wedding night, but also to join the Christian cause along with his brother, and suffer death in consequence.

Saint Lucy consecrated her virginity to God, and, supposedly, tore her own eyes out and gave them to her husband (who had admired them) as a kind of macabre substitute for the marital debt. (Lesson: never admire your girlfriend’s essential organs).

And, of course, there is the arch-virgin much mentioned in these posts – the eponymous Mary, who gets a definition all to herself as virgin‘s fourth meaning.

Mary’s particular achievement – the Virgin Birth – is also considered of some importance in these definitions for virgin. It presumably lies behind the gloss ‘a female insect producing fertile eggs by pathenogenesis [without the input of a male insect]’ (1883), as well as virgin‘s simple equivalence with ‘pathenogenesis’ itself (1849) – a word with its origin in the Greek parthenos, also meaning ‘virgin’ and ‘genesis’ (= ‘creation’).

This – reproduction without fertilisation – though clearly associated with Mary in Christian tradition, is also arguably the origin of Adam, so it doesn’t have to be have an explicit cultural gender-association. Indeed, there is a Middle English citation for virgin that defines it as ‘a youth or man who has remained in a state of chastity’. But this is admittedly an unusual example among the definitions as a whole. 

A woman’s touch

Roman depiction of a vestal virgin

A Vestal Virgin

If we go back to ancient Rome, we meet another sense the religious meaning of virgin can have: the very non-Christian Vestal Virgins, a group of highly respected women whose job it was to guard the ‘sacred fire’ and take care of the rituals and responsibilities that could not be dealt with by male priests.

They were so named because their duties were primarily to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and family, and, in consequence, the Vestal Virgins took on a role as kind of symbolic housewives to the whole of Rome.

Though they would be obliged to remain virginal throughout their time as priestesses, in the word’s second sense ‘a woman who is or remains in a state of inviolate chastity’, the vow only lasted thirty years, at the end of which they were free to marry (though most of them seem not to have been all that bothered).

This all said, while these saints and priestesses are all very much virgins in the most common sense of the word, the ecclesiastical meaning does not have to imply the sexual inexperience they normally connote, since ‘chastity’ simply means ‘clean, pure’ (from the Latin castus), and has no intrinsic connection with physical ‘intactness’, though it is frequently used as a synonym. In fact, the fourth definition for the second primary meaning of the word (where it can be used to describe things other than women) highlights ‘purity or freedom from stain’ and being ‘unsullied’.

If you cast your mind back to ‘M is for Marriage‘, you may remember that adultery means ‘pollution of the marriage bed’, suggesting by association that the marriage bed was a sacred – or indeed ‘pure’ – space. And indeed, marriage was widely considered invalid without consummation – something Henry VIII made much use of in his royal divorces – and, in consequence, the virtuous wife who dexterously trod the balance of Pure Marital Sex and Pollution of the Marriage Bed (whether by adultery as we conceive it, or by lusting after her husband) could be as much feted as the unmarried virgin (indeed, more so, if she proved herself skilled in housewifery and produced equally virtuous children).

Elizabeth I - sieve portrait

The ‘sieve portrait’ of Elizabeth I, 1583

That said, a curious and related term first cited in 1644 was virgin widow, meaning a woman whose husband had died before the marriage could be consummated, and whose status was therefore ambiguously poised between virginity (in the sense of being unmarried) and widowhood (being left behind after the death of a husband).

This was Catherine of Aragon‘s position, as argued at her divorce hearing, during the painful period  after Prince Arthur’s death – languishing in a political and social limbo, waiting for something to happen, steadily running out of money and losing points on the marriage market.

Purity is a virtue of the soul

An excellent, though somewhat horrific, example of the noble wife trope is Lucretia, the virtuous spouse of Collatine, whose rape by the royal prince Tarquin so outraged Rome that it led directly to the establishment of the Roman republic. As a wife, Lucretia is not a technical virgin, but she is (as Shakespeare puts it in the oft-forgotten early poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594)) ‘Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste‘.

Saint Augustine posits that ‘purity is a virtue of the soul‘, and since body and soul are (in this reading) distinct, Lucrece can consummate her marriage while still retaining her essential ‘bodily sanctity’ because she is free of polluting lust in the process.

Unfortunately, Collatine spends so much time bragging about his wife’s chastity to the bros in the camp that he invites trouble:

Haply that name of “chaste” unhapp’ly set
The bateless edge on [Tarquin’s] appetite

Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

Lucretia is so traumatised by Tarquin’s subsequent rape that she stabs herself rather than ‘live impure’, widely considered by the (male) world to be a Noble Decision. This led to her immortalisation in literature and philosophy as a perfect wife, but also prompted Augustine to engage in some terrible rape apologism in the service of his broader argument (‘If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?’).

Saints and sieves

It is presumably a version of this chastity-of-the-soul idea so beloved by Augustine that lies behind the story of Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin who proves her virginity by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve without spilling a drop (here she is depicted in 1555 with the sieve itself, and wearing an outfit that leaves little to the imagination, chaste or otherwise).

I suppose the idea behind the sieve story is that something that would normally flow through the porous surface is maintained ‘intact’, perhaps representing the pure soul within a porous body. At any rate, it became a key symbol of virginity, most notably in the ‘Sieve Portrait’ of the ‘Virgin Queen‘ Elizabeth I, who is also cited in the Dictionary as a definition of virgin in herself.

The last citation given in the dictionary for virgin, with which we will end, is from 1780, as ‘a fortress or city that has never been taken or subdued’. This has an obvious resonance with Lucrece, and the ultimately martial tale her story becomes – another link between feminine ‘closedness’ and men’s military convenience.

It’s hard to find a way to re-appropriate any of these ideas in a positive way. But maybe this transferred definition or fortresses and cities should make us think about Elizabeth I, who at least made them work to her own military and political advantage.

A virgin on a pedestal

Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand at the Fitzwilliam Museum, or Markgraf Is A Terrible Date

2013 May 30
by Markgraf
  • Due to copyright, we’ve not been able to show a lot of the paintings described in this post – so we encourage you to click the links, and view them on Quentin Blake’s website! They should all open in new windows, for SMOOTH, UNINTERRUPTED READING.
  • Content warning: mention of eating disorders.

It was at once a brilliant and thoroughly embarrassing afternoon.

I came home exhausted and tearful, clutching a new book and my partner’s sleeve.  “But I can’t write about that!” I protested.  “What would I draw for it?”

Hello, BadRep readers.  I’m here to tell you about the time I embarrassed myself in a museum.

Image: Kirsty Connell (credit link at end of article)

Image: Kirsty Connell (credit link at end of article)

I live in Cambridge, which is a nice place, and contains the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is also nice.  Startlingly nice, in fact.  Long warrens of gold-framed paintings, glass cabinets full of glittering treasures, and ancient wooden tables polished to a mirror sheen with little toblerone notices on them telling you to keep your paws off, thank you.

There’s marble busts that I could look at for years and never get old, myriad hoards of coins, terrible thorny ranks of daggers and swords, medieval Christian bling and a glorious rotating selection of temporary exhibitions.

Their temporary exhibitions are spectacular.  They recently had one on Chinese tomb treasures that I saw posters for when I was visiting London.  “I’ve been to that!” I exclaimed, pointing at a poster on the Tube.  But no-one was impressed, for they were cultured London types with the British Museum on their doorstep, and I am a scruffy Cambridge yokel with orange hair and visible underpants.

The most recent standout exhibit – which was so busy they had to implement a timed ticket system – was the Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand exhibition.

You all know who Quentin Blake is, of course.  He illustrated all of Roald Dahl’s books for children and many other things besides.  I wasn’t very familiar with his “many other things besides”, though, and that was what this exhibit showed me.

I didn’t know, for example, that he has done public paintings for hospitals.  There were many of his maternity-unit paintings, all involving cheerful mothers having fun in a variety of scenes (some are underwater for a water-birthing unit) and all very sweet and soothing to look at.

And there was this one that made me lose my shit comprehensively.

I was already on delicate emotional footing because I have a lot of feelings about Quentin Blake, and then I came across this painting he’d done for the Vincent Square eating disorder treatment unit in London.

The painting, titled Ordinary Life No. 8, is of a young woman in her hospital room in a gown, feeding birds on her windowsill through the open sash window.  She looks happy, and all the birds are eating seeds.

This just in: I have just started crying writing that paragraph.

I am at work.

She’s in her room, where she has to stay until she’s better, but the birds can go where they please; she is happy to feed the birds, and the birds are happy to be fed.  Oh my god, there are so many things in that piece that kind of punched me in the heart until I burst into a fire hydrant of noisy tears in the middle of the reflective silence of the exhibit.

Some very well-behaved children turned around and scowled at me.  My partner ushered me on.  The next piece was from the lithograph series Girls and Dogs, of a young girl in a red dress, happily showing a gigantic pitch-black terrifying-looking wolf monster a painting she’d done.  The tears came again, only worse.

And then, at the end, there was an illustration for The Boy In The Dress (a children’s novel by David Walliams, of all people) and it was all too much and I had to leave.

“Mummy,” said a small child with crisp, angelic gold ringlets bearing aloft a blue ribbon, “That man is crying”.

Blake’s paintings, with their characteristic loose, expressive style – fluid washes of watercolour and ink contained by haphazard spidery cages of scratchy black ink somehow conspiring to be more life-accurate than anything photorealism could ever offer – capture and reflect simple happiness and freedom.

I don’t want to use words like “innocence”, because I don’t like its implications of fetishising a lack of knowledge.  Blake’s paintings are very canny; their veneer of simplicity disguising a great depth of self-awareness and knowledge of the subject.

The young girl showing the big wolf her painting isn’t afraid of the big wolf.  The big wolf likes her painting, and looms in front of her with giant, masonry-nail fangs bared in an appreciative grin.  She has nothing to fear from her playmate, however, because she is brave and has made friends with something that others would find terrifying and avoid.

The young woman in her hospital room is finding joy in feeding the birds.  The birds don’t know why she’s in hospital, or of her own difficulties with food; they just like seeds and she’s put some out for them.

I bought a copy of The Boy In The Dress on the way home.  An entire exhibition of mostly women, magic and birds and I end up with a book about a boy who likes to wear dresses.  That’s top marketing, that.

I’ll let you know how it is.

The Quentin Blake: Drawn By Hand exhibition closed in mid-May, but you can still check out the following:

Image of the museum banner by Kirsty Connell on Flickr.

[Guest Post] Veganism,, and Rape Culture

2013 May 27
by Guest Blogger
  • First things first: there’s a trigger warning on this post for discussion of (and links to discussion of) sexual assault, racism, homophobia, transphobia and generally insultingly bad advertising – take care when clicking the links. We haven’t included any images which depict these things below, but we have used some viral text-based images which reference them.
  • This is another guest post from the lovely Alice Slater (we’re thinking of adopting her permanently if we can persuade her…). If you’ve got a guest post brewing in your brain, drop us a line and send a pitch to [email protected].

Everyone approaches veganism from a different angle.

Some vegans find their way into it through kindness and empathy for living creatures; others are swayed by hard facts and shocking images. Neither is more or less agreeable, and I suspect that in our day-to-day lives, most vegans use a combination of both when faced with questions from curious veggie or omni friends.

veg1But then there’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA as they’re commonly known. PETA’s ongoing racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and fat-shaming ads and publicity stunts are frequently ripped to pieces online.

Plenty of veg*ns dislike PETA’s controversial tactics, yet many agree that at least their attention-seeking techniques shine a light on the fight and get results, regardless of the harm they cause to others in the process.

PETA are a massive organisation, and they spread a very clear message: animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment – but we’ll appropriate the Holocaust (see below), slavery, women’s bodies, homosexuality and trans* stereotypes to further our cause – and we don’t give a hoot what oppression we’re supporting in the process.

One of the *less* triggering but still unhelpfully Holocaust-appropriating images one's dashboard can encounter.

One of the *less* triggering unhelpful images one’s dashboard can get covered in.

PETA aren’t the only platform for animal rights, though. Vegans rejoiced a few weeks ago when the beta version of finally went live. For you carnivores not in the loop, is a social network for vegans to exchange recipes, activist resources, articles, images and videos.

It’s similar to Tumblr and Twitter insofar as the primary purpose is to upload original content that can then be reblogged (“rebleated”) by fellow vegans. It’s a great way for vegans to connect on a micro level, by spreading awareness of local causes and events, and on a macro level by communicating with vegans on a global scale.

For the first week, it was mostly gifs of piglets, infographics of banana ice cream recipes, and cartoon avocados. With 5,500 profiles created within seven days of the site’s launch, the content rapidly improved: awesome recipes, powerful pro-vegan ads, witty one-liners and inspirational quotes promoting veganism were rife. But unfortunately, so was rape culture.

Due to the reblogging nature of the site, the same images kept popping into my feed: an illustration of an angry cow squeezing the bare breast of a lactating woman, a cartoon of a robot raping a blood-covered cow1, milk being referred to as “rape juice” and the comparison between enjoying the taste of meat to the sexual pleasure a rapist experiences (below right).

Most shocking of all was a video entitled “Women forcefully milked in the street”. The short film documents a provocative street performance in which a lactating mother has her baby snatched from her arms by masked men with bloodied hands, who then tear open her blouse to reveal her bare breasts. The rest of the content is in the title. It’s absolutely horrific to watch.

'Pretty much the same argument'. Or pretty much incredibly dismissive.

Another less visually graphic, but horrible bit of viral reblogging.

When I mentioned my abhorrence of the casual connection between rape and the dairy industry on Twitter, a vegan pal asked, “What else would you call it?”

Well, the industry term for the bench on which female cows are artificially inseminated is often the “rape rack”, so referring to the process as rape isn’t a particular stretch. But the very fact that this is a common term within the dairy industry is a product of rape culture.

The pig factory employee found forcing metal rods and electrodes into the vaginas of sows is a product of rape culture. The flagrant disregard for the mental health of survivors by flaunting these triggering images to promote veganism is a product of rape culture.

By comparing the industrialised rape and infanticide of the dairy industry to the rape and infanticide of women and children, we are asking non-vegans to project the empathy for the latter onto the suffering of the former. The problem with comparing the dairy industry to rape is that we still live in a rape culture.

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which a teenage girl is gang-raped, photographed unconscious by her aggressors and is still blamed. We live in a world in which an accused rapist’s conviction is overturned because his disabled alleged victim did not resist the attack. We live in a world in which women are threatened with rape on a daily basis and are expected to laugh when comedians crack rape jokes. We don’t live in a world that cares enough about the rape of humans for the comparison to be truly effective.

By spreading these images of women being assaulted, we are supporting rape culture, and we are appropriating the suffering and strength of survivors. It is unacceptable to hijack, trigger and traumatise to forward a cause that has so many other convincing arguments to sway potential vegans into ditching the dairy.

Do we really want to be part of a movement that, like PETA, pushes animal rights forward with one hand and shoves civil rights, women’s liberation, LGBTQI rights, issues of race and body positivism aside with the other? That is not my veganism.

To paraphrase Flavia Dzodan, my veganism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. From dressing up as the KKK to producing pro-domestic violence ads, PETA are absolutely rancid, poisonous and unforgivable. It’s also unforgivable to use triggering imagery of women being assaulted to push the vegan agenda.

  • By day, Alice Slater is a writer and bookseller from London. By night, she is a horror film addict who always keeps the lights on. She writes for Mslexia and Drunken Werewolf, and she blogs about veg*n high jinx at
  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: We’ve not linked these two as they really are truly unpleasant. They’re definitely real, though. []

[Guest Post] Jeans, No Heels: Gender & Sexuality in Eli Roth’s Hostel (Part 2/2)

2013 May 14
by Guest Blogger

According to Eli Roth, it was a conscious choice for the first example of nudity in Hostel II (2007) to be that of a man. Following the credit sequence and a quick catch up with Hostel survivor Paxton (Jay Hernandez), we’re introduced to our victims.

Far from the seedy lights of Amsterdam, these beautiful college-age women are in a life drawing class in Rome. Within thirty seconds, the male nude is replaced by a female model, Axelle (Vera Jordanova), who disrobes to the sound of audible gasps. Her gaze lingers on our main character, Beth (Lauren German). Beth grits her teeth, her forehead puckered into a tense frown as she begins to sketch.

Beth and Axelle talk in Hostel 2“Jeans, no heels,” is what Beth says when asked if she’s packed for their upcoming trip to Prague with friends Whitney and Lorna. Beth may as well be called Sidney or Laurie: she is masculinised, her relationship with the female model Axelle is eroticised (Whitney even jokingly refers to Axelle as Beth’s ‘girlfriend’) and it is revealed that Beth keeps her father on an allowance following the death of her wealthy mother.

Beth and Axelle’s encounters are carefully structured to be titillating, and yet Beth’s sexuality is never openly discussed. Compared to the view of male homosexuality depicted in the first Hostel film, we’re in full-on homophobic fratboy territory here: lesbians are hot (as long as they’re young, slim and not too gay), and gay men are scary and have to be repressed.

Hostel II differs to Hostel in that we get a deeper understanding of how the whole operation works, focalised through two American clients, Todd and Stuart. “This isn’t like going to a whorehouse,” Todd explains to reluctant Stuart after they successfully bid a collective $100,000 on securing Whitney and Beth as their torture victims. “You can’t just back out.”

Roth works hard to ensure the viewer feels an iota of sympathy for Stuart: he is de-masculinised by a practical and demanding wife, he lacks charisma, and he has to be cajoled into the Hostel experience by the powerhouse Todd. Todd compares their first kill to losing their virginity; Stuart pensively asks, “Do you think we’re sick?”

“We’re the normal ones,’ Todd replies, taking a deep sniff of cocaine. As they draw up to the factory, a mournful serenade plays as we see the doubt flicker across Stuart’s face. Roth asks us to feel sympathy for someone who has essentially been peer-pressured into paying vast sums of money to torture a woman – who intentionally resembles his wife, no less – to death.

poster for hostel 2, complete with screaming woman hanging upside downHostel twists itself into a game of privilege top trumps. The rich are powerful and the powerful are rich: the notion of power, and an individual’s lack of control over their own fate, presents a contemporary spin on the 18th century fear of the aristocracy, often portrayed through a vampiric allegory along the lines of Dracula.

Hostel II even includes a female client who pays hard cash to writhe – naked, naturally – in an Elizabeth Bathory-esque tub as the blood of virginal Lorna showers down upon her bare skin. It’s interesting to note that this is one of the few onscreen deaths of torture victims: the franchise often shies away from the so-called money shot (another grotesque connection between torture flicks and pornography).

Additionally, the fact that the only female client – aside from a stern silver-haired horsey type who unsuccessfully bids on the trio – chooses to murder her victim in this rather specifically vain method reinforces the assertion that for women, beauty is a matter of life and death. (This is also articulated in Hostel when the infamous “eyeball” woman catches sight of her mutilated face and throws herself from the arms of safety to certain death under a speeding train).

The fate of Whitney is grisly: she is made up ‘for the client’ in a corset and smudged, clownish make up. Todd gets cold feet, and so she is offered around and sold to the highest bidder. Sensitive Stuart finds his sea legs and takes her on as a warm up for Beth, who is dressed in a suit and made to even further resemble his wife.

How does Beth survive? She seduces him, naturally, then chops his dick off and pays her way out because she’s stinkin’ freakin’ rich. Let’s not forget her place, though: after negotiating with the Alan Sugar of the Hostel world, she is bent over a table and tattooed on the small of her back, rather than her bicep, ankle or, oh I don’t know, anywhere on her body that wouldn’t liken the process to being fucked from behind.

In a world in which The Human Centipede exists (and actually manages to generate enough revenue to produce a sequel), the so-called “torture porn” movement seems to have finally tipped over the edge into self-parody. The golden age for splatter flicks was 2002-2007. Since then, things seemed to have waned.

The biggest horror titles of 2012 suggest a rekindled preference for things that go bump in the night, with poltergeists, paranormal happenings and possession pictures enjoying a rise in popularity. The washed-up sequels of classic Splat Pack originals, such as Hostel III and Saw ad infinitum, are slinking off into the background – and good riddance.

  • By day, Alice Slater is a writer and bookseller from London. By night, she is a horror film addict who always keeps the lights on. She writes for Mslexia and Drunken Werewolf, and she blogs about veg*n high jinx at

[Guest Post] You Just Take Them: Gender & Sexuality in Eli Roth’s Hostel (Part 1/2)

2013 May 13
by Guest Blogger
  • Today we’re honoured to welcome Alice Slater to the BadRep Towers soapbox for the first of two posts. Wanna join the party? Send your pitch to [email protected]!

It’s unsurprising to learn that the big names in the so-called “torture porn” movement are all blokes. Known as the Splat Pack, James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence), Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses, Halloween) and Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II-IV) all specialise in a brand of horror that leans heavily on sadism and graphic onscreen gore – the more creative and toe-curlingly disgusting, the better.

Eli Roth met a wave of criticism for the gender roles in Hostel (2005), a film in which all the women are either sex workers, hypersexualised and morally repugnant, strung out on enough narcotics to render them completely obsolete as anything other than onscreen ass, or all of the above (with the exception of two Japanese twentysomething tourists, who are portrayed as giggling and coquettish – the stereotypical western idealisation of Japanese women as schoolgirlish and subservient).

Poster for HostelRoth, being a sensitive chap at heart, created Hostel Part II as a response – kind of like Neil Marshall hopping from Dog Soldiers to The Descent. Nice try, Eli. The gender politics are equally terrible in Hostel II. I know – “I can’t believe it!” said absolutely no one.

Now, horror isn’t the most feminist genre, but it’s my genre of choice. Female nudity, themes of female virginity and scenes of a sexual nature are prevalent in horror, from chaste Janet Leigh’s infamous shower scene to the chesticular fireworks of Piranha 3DD. Sex and death – the circle of life, as Sir Elton calls it – are intrinsically linked, and often sit well side by side. We all know what the phrase “torture porn” refers to, but there’s a problematic duality created by suggesting that sadistic violence and sexual gratification are titillating in the same way. It reduces the whole horror genre to something akin to Bizarre magazine: Blood! Tits! Tits covered in blooood!

Hostel opens with an unsympathetic bunch of lads on tour as they weave through the streets of Amsterdam. The group laugh at sensitive, still-getting-over-his-ex Josh (Derek Richardson) for suggesting they take a break from smoking pot and chasing skirt to check out a museum or two. Then they fistbump and hi-five their way through the Red Light District. It leaves us all feeling well primed for the next hour and a half of blood, guts and dismemberment because they are quite possibly the most unlikeable people in the history of humanity (apart from Jeremy Clarkson, who retains his crown of The Worst).

“Paying to go into a room to do whatever you want to someone isn’t exactly a turn-on,” says Sensitive Josh, and we all cock our heads and recognise that he is definitely going to die. The anti-sex work comparison drawn between prostitution and the premise of Hostel – the rich paying high prices to torture and kill others – doesn’t go unnoticed.

Loutish and drunk, the lads are denied entrance to their hostel. As a rain of glass bottles smashes around their feet, an eastern European tourist offers refuge in his hostel room. Here, Sensitive Josh awkwardly explains the definition of ‘clitoris’ (“Women have it? It’s like right near the labia? Like, it hangs?”) and talk naturally turns to sex.

“Looking for girls?” their new friend Alex asks. He then creepily shows them photos of himself having sex with women “so hot, you won’t believe it”. He explains that the women of Bratislava “go crazy for any foreigner. You just… take them.”

After hearing one of the most chilling phrases in the history of patriarchy, off the threesome go to Bratislava. A creep on the train confirms that eastern European women are smokin’ hot and DTF. He then places a hand on Sensitive Josh’s thigh and Josh reacts as though he’s just had his Achilles tendons cut (and we can be accurate here because that is exactly what happens to him approximately twenty minutes later).

This brief moment of casual homophobia is not to be overlooked: Josh, the sensitive one, the most respectful and the least sexually repugnant of the three, later places his hand on this man’s thigh in a sincere yet hesitant apology – moments after being called a “faggot” by Paxton. “I would have done the same thing at your age,” the man says, regarding Josh’s extreme and aggressive reaction to the hand-on-thigh moment from before. “It’s not easy, but from my experience, choosing to have a family was the right choice for me. Now I have my little girl, who means more to me than anything. But you should do what’s right for you.”

Hold on, what? It’s no coincidence that the next shot is of Josh ‘making his choice’ – on the brink of having sex with an incredibly attractive woman. Because of course, sexuality is a choice and the option of having a family is strictly for those that choose ‘straight’.

Anyway, the hostel is everything they imagined and more: slender young women shoot them come-hither looks, are totally chill to hang out in the spa with their tits out, and laugh at their inane jokes. Reader, our trio of lads go dancing, pop pills and eventually fuck their roommates to Willow’s Song, the alluring siren’s song performed by Britt Eckland as she seduces the copper in 1973’s hit cult flick The Wicker Man (incidentally, another movie about a community seducing and eventually murdering outsiders).

The problem? These are not sexually liberated tourists, having a laugh and shagging a bunch of goons for the fun of it. They, like Willow of The Wicker Man, are duplicitous: the sex is the primer for the betrayal, because we all know that sexually liberated women are up to no good.

  • Come back tomorrow for Part 2, in which Alice looks at Hostel II – and its more prominent female characters – in more detail… EDIT: Read Part 2 here.
  • By day, Alice Slater is a writer and bookseller from London. By night, she is a horror film addict who always keeps the lights on. She writes for Mslexia and Drunken Werewolf, and she blogs about veg*n high jinx at

(Un)dressing The Little Mermaid: Disney Adapts Andersen

2013 April 29
by Hodge
  • Ed’s Note: This post is partly in honour of Poems Underwater, a new project on the symbolism of the mermaid our Hodge is involved with, which you are hereby urged to check out (and perhaps contribute to, as it has a zine and everything!).

Released in 1989, Disney’s The Little Mermaid heralded the start of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ – a period of critical and commercial success that followed a rocky patch where the studio’s prime focus had been on Disneyland attractions rather than feature films.

It was soundtracked by Broadway golden boy Howard Ashman, who changed the planned English butler crab into a Jamaican crustacean named Sebastian, and reworked the film’s structure to more closely align with that of a Broadway musical. He also decided to base Ursula the Sea Witch on drag artist and disco star Divine (who died whilst the film was still in production).

Ashman died of AIDS two years later, in March 1991, but his musical influence, first on Mermaid, and subsequently on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, was a major factor in the regeneration of the studio in the early nineties. Mermaid won Oscar gongs for Best Song and Best Score, the first Oscar nod for Disney since the Seventies.

Mermaids of the Eighties

Splash! poster

Splash!, 1984

The Disney studio had been considering Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid for adaptation as early as the Snow White years, but it was not until the late Eighties that the time finally seemed right. Even then, there was concern it might too closely duplicate Splash, which Disney had produced in 1984.

Splash itself had been rushed through production because there were rumours of another mermaid film in the pipeline elsewhere – a Warren Beatty vehicle that eventually fell through. Why exactly mermaids were suddenly in the ascendant during this particular period of the late twentieth century is open to speculation; at any rate, the nudity and adult content in Splash led directly to the creation of Touchstone Pictures, Disney’s ‘older audiences’ label. Mermaids (particularly Darryl Hannah’s mermaid) were too sexual for the family studio in 1984.

Ironically, of course, mermaid – “maiden of the sea” – suggests that these aquatic women are rather more virginal than ‘Touchstone Pictures’ thought. Traditional (cisnormative) misogynistic popular wisdom holds women in general to be ‘leaky vessels’, because of the amount of ‘moisture’ they produce, but though mermaids live in the water, they have no apparent human genitalia, making them, by contrast, vessels that are rather neatly sealed.

In this, they link with the Virgin Mary, who appears in Catholic symbolism as a ‘fountain forever sealed’ in the middle of an enclosed garden, representing the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s homonymic (and virginal) association with mermaids, and the link between the sea (mer) and the mother (mere) introduces an additional layer to this.

Alongside this, there is also a parallel virgin/whore tradition of the mermaid as prostitute and even embodied vagina (since, famously, vaginas are often described as smelling like fish).

Starbucks logo pre-1987 - the double-tailed mermaid

The Starbucks logo, not abandoned until 1987.

This opposing strand presumably comes from sailors’ fear of the Siren-figure and the unknowns out in the sea, but it’s also connected with a different type of mermaid altogether – the melusine. A double-tailed half-woman, half-fish, her intrinsic, though hidden, fishiness only emerges when she takes a bath. Even then, the double tail leaves her human genitalia open to the world in what some have claimed is an appropriation of older symbols of female fertility, such as the Sheela na gig or even the goddess Venus (an alternative ‘mother’ connection).

Incidentally the melusine, not the mermaid, is the figure in the (now closely cropped) logo for Starbucks coffee, the first branch of which opened – logo blazing proud, bare-breasted and double-tailed – in 1971, a decade before Splash went into production.

The coffee-shop melusine was maintained in her full glory until 1987 (although she was ‘sealed’ at the point where the tails meet, as her original had not been); the first of several censoring crops came into effect around the time Disney bosses turned their attention to Andersen.

For a modern contrast to the ‘sealed off’ melusine, have a look at one of the mermaids commissioned by men’s deodorant brand Lynx for an early Noughties advertising campaign, whose posterior is beginning to resurface through her scales, soft porn-like.

Planning The Little Mermaid

Hans Christian Andersen’s original Little Mermaid tale was serviceable, but – much like Starbucks’ logo – it had to be sanitised before Disney could take it to a Disney audience. Tellingly, the changes proposed during this period of pre-production were substantially same as the ones suggested during the preliminary work in the Thirties.

Hans Christian Anderson, photographed by Thora Hallager

Hans Christian Andersen, photographed by Thora Hallager

The first thing to do was give it a happy ending, since in Andersen’s version the Prince’s indifference to the mermaid results in her annihilation and transformation to ‘a daughter of the air’.

This was typical Andersen: he wrote that ‘most of what I have written is a reflection of myself’, and he was not a terribly happy man. Unreciprocated love was an ongoing feature of his life, and throughout it he nursed passions for various inappropriate people.

These included celebrity soprano Jenny Lind (who is said to have inspired his story The Nightingale after she put him firmly in the friendzone in 1844) and various straight men, but he also wrote of avoiding actual sexual encounters – his diary records him visiting prostitutes, talking to them, and then returning home to masturbate alone.

Many of his ‘fairy tales’ are characterised by violence, speechlessness and unreciprocated love, often across two different ‘species’, as with the tin soldier’s love for a paper ballerina in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, or indeed the Little Mermaid’s love for the human Prince – a feature that tends to make them, like their author, rather sexless in approach.

Although the sad stuff was scrapped, the symbolically significant speechlessness of the Mermaid was maintained in the Disney screenplay. A mermaid’s voice is her primary power, since her singing can lure sailors to their deaths, so its loss is a significant one – aphonia in a milder form had also been a feature of Splash, where Darryl Hannah’s character cannot initially speak English.

Disney’s Ariel was voiced by Broadway star (and Ashman associate) Jodi Benson, and her voice remains her defining beauty in the film. But the manner of its loss changes: while both Little Mermaids give their voices up to the Sea Witch, in Andersen’s story the unnamed mermaid has her tongue cut out to bring this about. Disney cleaned this up, and, in the process, rendered it reversible: Ariel’s voice is depicted as a glowing, ghostly ball that can pass through bodily barriers without drawing blood – as in traditional artistic representations of the soul.

Ironically, this is exactly what Andersen’s mermaid is seeking: her love for the prince is the means through which she hopes to win ‘immortality’ and the chance to share in the joys of paradise. (This rather Romantic notion, albeit gender-inverted, links Andersen’s tale thematically with Friedrich de la Motte’s mermaid Undine – and also Tchaikovsky’s watery Swan Lake, composed in 1875, the year Andersen died). Disney refocused the mermaid’s longing for a soul to a more secular – and sexualised – teenage quest for the love of a handsome prince.

She sells sea shells

But Disney hit a problem when it came to the artwork. Mermaids, of course, are typically bare-breasted, but so too were traditional depictions of Andersen’s ‘little’ mermaid, including the statue in Copenhagen’s harbour.

The Little Mermaid loud and proud in Copenhagen's harbour

The Little Mermaid loud and proud in Copenhagen’s harbour

There is not a single illustration to the fairy tale pre-Disney that shows her wearing anything at all over her chest – in the case of Heath Robinson, this emphasises the ‘Little’ part, as the mermaid is clearly a child in his illustrations.

Disney's ArielThe mermaid is fifteen in Andersen’s tale, so her littleness could be argued either way, but in 1989 Disney producers obviously decided they wanted her to be legal (in most states anyway). To make it completely clear, in the course of the film Ariel declares to her father (a familiar refrain) ‘I’m sixteen years old. I’m not a child.’

But however innocently naked (and animated) the Little Mermaid might be, Disney certainly could not show a sixteen year old’s breasts on screen. Their solution to this problem was the creation of a purple bra made out of shells – a new mermaid first.

When coupled with the waistband-like arrangement at the top of her tail (another innovation, since traditionally the mermaid’s scales segue gradually from the skin at her waist), this decision had the effect of creating a kind of mermaid bikini that implies she might just be wearing an elaborate two-piece – one very similar, in fact, to the ensemble worn by Princess Jasmine in Disney’s next film, Aladdin. And, of course, it also has the effect of emphasising breasts and hips either side of a tiny waist.

The Barbie-style Ariel doll I had as a child had (as modern-day packaging still asserts) ‘removable clothes for costume change‘, so it was clear she was a two-legged being with an optional tail.

This has the effect of making the transition from mermaid to human much easier: in Andersen’s story, creating two legs out of one fish tail is exactly as vicious as you would expect it to be, and the draught the mermaid drinks to effect this causes the sensation of ‘a two-edged sword [passing] through her delicate body’ – so severe she passes out. Throughout her subsequent time on land, each foot she puts to the ground feels like ‘treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives’.

Bodily mutilation – indeed, mortification – is everywhere in Andersen’s story. After everyone is asleep, the mermaid goes to ‘sit on the broad marble steps [of the palace] for it eased her burning feet to bathe them in the cold sea-water’. Significantly – and somewhat bizarrely – such mutilation has been an ongoing problem for the Copenhagen representation of Andersen’s mermaid: the statue in the harbour has been blown up, decapitated (twice) and had its arm sawn off, in addition to many petty acts of vandalism since its erection in 1913.

Some liberation?

By contrast with Andersen’s difficult transition, Ariel’s easy-on, easy-off fish tail and bikini bra combo not only ‘re-opens’ the traditional closed mermaid vessel, it also sexualises the teenage mermaid in a manner markedly different from anything in Andersen’s original (where the mermaid’s love is increased by knowledge of the prince’s good deeds, and her longing for a soul).

The Little Mermaid - Disney's artwork

The Little Mermaid – Disney’s artwork

By censoring Ariel, Disney draws attention to her body and breasts, so she resembles a California surfer girl. The nakedness, which in earlier illustrations was straightforward and childlike, takes on an explicitly sexual edge (for more on this, have a look at this piece by Virginia Borges).

The result is that Disney’s Little Mermaid becomes the straightforward tale of a sixteen-year-old struggling with her father for the right to explore her burgeoning sexuality and go out with a boy. And because she ultimately uses this right to make a good marriage (wearing something strikingly similar to the dress worn by the equally speechless Princess Diana at her 1981 marriage), Ariel makes good in the end and everyone is happy.

Like most of the Disney Renaissance heroines, hers is the story of a successful transition from the rule of the father to the rule of the husband.

Other mermaids

But it’s interesting that at the same time the producers were working on a heteronormative middle-class fantasy idea, their musical wunderkind Howard Ashman (despite dying of what, at the time, was popularly cast as a very non-family-friendly disease) was injecting some Broadway pizzazz into the soundtrack. This included the introduction of a deviantly-styled figure like Divine via the character of Ursula, the Sea Witch (though of course she is defeated, as does not happen in Andersen).

In fact, as the Disney Renaissance got going, the calibre of stars from distinctly non-Disney backgrounds increased: The Lion King, the Renaissance nadir, had major Broadway stars alongside A-list Hollywood stars, and the cast included black and Latino actors – something that had not even been considered back in the Forties (when Uncle Walt wanted some racial-caricature ‘Jim Crow’ figures in Dumbo, the crows were voiced by white men doing their best ‘black man’ impression instead). The staff list at the Disney studios was full of Jewish and homosexual figures like Ashman. Yet The Little Mermaid ushered in some of the most socially conservative films Disney produced. A strange duality.

Three Popular Myths About Feminism Briefly Busted

2013 April 24
by MiaVee

I am supposed to be writing about Bioshock Infinite right now (which is amazing and you should all play it right bloody now) but then, something happened.

Something long-awaited, occasionally hoaxed, but nobody was ever entirely sure would ever come to pass…THE SUN CAME OUT AND SPRING ARRIVED IN THE UK, FINALLY. And also there was the death of 87-year-old Margaret Thatcher of a stroke at the end of a protracted illness.

And lo, the internet did have a field day. Twitter was a maelstrom of popping corks, whitewashing of one of the darkest times post-war Britain has faced, and joyous choruses of that song from The Wizard of Oz, all alongside expressions of disgust for every aspect of the reaction. The 8th of April 2013 will go down in Twitter history as a bona fide fustercluck.

I Need Feminism Because... sign

Photo: Laura Forest (for more info, see link at end of this post)

The New Statesman ran a brief and to-the-point piece about whether or not Thatcher could or should be considered a feminist icon. In the words of the Iron Lady herself, “I hate feminism. It is poison.”

So far, so cut-and-dry. But her words have been niggling at me somewhat. She’s not the first woman to denounce and distance herself from feminism. Nor will she be the last. But I cannot help but wonder what would drive a woman who would never have reached her position without feminism to speak out against it with such contempt.

While we can now only speculate on why her personal views were what they were, I’m reminded of a few arguments I hear with disheartening frequency about why feminism isn’t needed and why feminists need to shut up.

Spoilers: I am neither moved nor convinced by any of them.

1.I don’t need feminism. We have the vote. It’s done. Women are totes equal. Get over it.

This line of reasoning barely dignifies a response beyond pointing out, somewhat wearily, that it’s demonstrably untrue. Whether we’re talking pay gaps, sexual abuse, street harassment, representation in politics, assumptions about childcare arrangements or anything else in an endless list of smaller inequalities adding up to a great big unequal world. Yes, women in the UK have it better than at any point in the past; no, that doesn’t mean that equality has happened.

2.I’m just ‘one of the lads’ in my social group/place of work. Feminists are trying to drive a wedge between me and the men in my life by making a fuss over nothing.”

It is wonderful to be accepted as socially or professionally equal to men. Yet I felt bile rising in my throat as I typed that. Being “one of the lads”, while harmless on the face of it, is an argument that has some rather unpleasant meanings once you place it under scrutiny. It panders directly to the “man, rather than person, as default” rhetoric that pervades almost every corner of our society.

This line of reasoning erases feminine identities and elevates stereotypically masculine traits or interests as something one should aspire to and work towards, something essential for social acceptance. There is internalised misogyny afoot every time a self-proclaimed “ladette” crows about chugging pints of beer, watching a match, ogling boobs or besting her boyfriend at Modern Warfare 2. The heavily implied sentiment here is “these are all MAN things and I am more like a MAN for doing them and that puts me above all of you feminists trying to spoil my fun.”

None of these activities are inherently “gendered”, and the fact you behave like they are is sort-of-kind-of-rather undermining those of us genuinely striving for equality.

3.Everybody should be judged on merit. Feminism is trying to give women a leg-up over men and that is unfair!”

Yes, the promotion of one group of people over another based on nothing but their attributes at birth is inherently unfair, and no, this is not what the majority of feminists want.

Feminists LIKE men. In fact, plenty of feminists ARE men. Feminism is about reaching equality, or parity, whatever you want to call it. It is a movement against the oppression of hundreds of years. In most fields of employment, and certainly at the highest levels, women are underrepresented. If you really believe that we already exist in a meritocracy, how else could you account for this disparity without the spurious notion that “men are just better at everything, LOL”?

Feminists are not seeking to take anything away from men: they are simply trying to level the still-slanted playing field so that the ball stops rolling into the men’s goal by default. Sure, it’s not the vertiginous cliff face it once was, but the angle of elevation still very much favours the dudes. If you want a meritocracy, you have to submit to its conditions. If you believe the only way you can succeed is by ensuring that the oppressive status quo is maintained, then you may need to revisit your understanding of the term “individual merit.


These are just three of the more common arguments I hear. From women with whom I am friends, it’s troubling, but can at least be the start of a constructive dialogue. From women in the public eye, however, from politician to pop star, these are toxic messages that reinforce oppression and can thwart the ambitions of girls and women.

The cognitive shift from “Hey, I can do that, and I happen to be a girl!” to “I would like to do that, but I’m a girl” may sound subtle, but its impact is potentially devastating. The dismissive words of a high-achieving female role model can make all the difference, so it’s vital that we understand that these women would not be where they are today without feminism and that their public declarations show a fundamental lack of understanding about the ongoing struggle for equality.

Hopeless Reimantic 3: Pack Mentality

2013 April 23
by Rei Hab

For more about this series on Romance Novel Tropes, read Rei’s Hopeless Reimantic intro post and Part 1: Virginal Heroines, and Part 2, on babies and pregnancy in the romance genre.

A typical CGI alpha male: tight tee, big muscles, attitude problem.

I Googled “alpha male” and this was one of the first images that came up. I, uh, can see how that might be hard to resist. (Via


TRIGGER WARNING: This segment of the Hopeless Reimantic series deals with some themes which may be triggering to abuse/harassment survivors, and some of the authors discussed within play it seriously fast and loose with the concept of consent.

Welcome back to Hopeless Reimantic, where I try to convince you all that my taste in books isn’t really that bad!

First of all, some housekeeping: er, it’s been a while since I last put out one of these, so sorry about that. My degree sort of ate me (final year), and it stands to swallow me whole again in a couple of weeks (FINAL YEEEAR), but I promise to get back to some kind of regular posting schedule in the summer.

Alright! Let’s talk about alpha males. Specifically, let’s talk about how spurious science has constructed a cultural narrative in which the expectation of alpha-dom has been projected onto men. Even more specifically, let’s talk about what that means in romance novels, because the Alpha Male (see also “alphahole” and “alphole”) of Romancelandia is a different specimen to the kind uplifted by, say, economy theorists. Or PUAs.

This in itself is kind of interesting to me, to be honest, because I encounter a lot of guys (and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have experienced this) who say that they feel they need to alpha it on up because that, secretly, is what women want.1

At first glance, you’d see that pretty well backed up by the sheer overwhelming presence of the alpha male in romance novels. You don’t even have to delve into a Mills and Boon backlist to see it; take Fifty Shades of Grey. Christian Grey is arrogant, and controlling, and he gets what he wants. He’s tormented, angsty, abusive and stalkerish (but only in a really hot way), and he’s richer than God, better-looking than the most virile of the Vikings and carries his own name-brand popsicles around in case you happen to get thirsty when you’re going down on him.

A Mills and Boon backlist will show you a lot more of the same, though. This brand of alpha male is raw power in a designer suit; he mixes pure, unbridled Man with all the trappings of high civilisation, because his power is such that he can dominate any world he wants to. Often he’s risen up from humble beginnings or has some kind of connection with a criminal underworld, just so you know he’s a badass.

A different breed of alpha male emphasises the badass aspect over the size of the wallet. One of the most popular alpha males in recent releases is Kane “Tack” Allen, hero of Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man. Now, my experience of Ashley has largely come through reading reviews of her work, but I did check out Motorcycle Man, and I might take a look through her back catalogue with a view to devoting a post on her at some point. Not because I’m a particular fan, but because her books – and their wild success – have caused quite a stir among the romance-reading community, and I think that deserves some scrutiny.

Some people vociferously dislike them, while others compare them to literary crack (there is a Kristen Ashley Addicts Support Group). At any rate, she specialises in this certain type of alpha, and Tack is a perfect example of it. He’s bad, he’s brawny, and he’s terrific in bed (he gives Tyra, our heroine, “so many orgasms I lost count”). Let’s take a look at him:

Dark, longish, somewhat unruly, definitely sexy hair with a hint of gray interspersed in it. Blue eyes with pale lines radiating from the sides that I knew, I just knew, came from laughing. A dark goatee around his mouth, the bit at his chin overlong in a biker way that was too cool for words. Fantastic tattoos slithering up his defined arms, broad shoulders and muscled neck along with one on his ripped chest and a big one on his back. The rest of his body hard and strong…

– Kristen Ashley, Motorcycle Man, Kindle location 87.

He also embodies alphadom, as, in my understanding, Ashley heroes tend to. I gave up highlighting all the stereotypical alpha behaviours he displayed that I found creepy, because the book’s quite long, but I when I looked at all the ones I’d taken, I still had twenty-four. I lost count of all the times he backed her into something or grabbed hold of her and she told him to back off and he wouldn’t. And he always gets what he wants:

“To be fair, I’m givin’ you a warning,” he said quietly.

“Let me go,” I demanded just as quietly, mostly because I was freaking out.

“I want somethin’, I get it.”

“Let me go,” I repeated.

Motorcycle Man, Kindle location 498

I’m going to try to not quote this book too heavily, but I could, because there are a lot of informatively creepy passages in it. One last one, though, because it’s important. He manhandles her and tells her what to do and in the end she is happy with it because deep down, it’s what she wants. So far, so adherent to PUA theory. What Ashley enthusiasts – and alpha fans in general – would argue makes that sexy and not creepy is that he knows it’s what she wants. That is the nature of their connection: that he knows what she wants, even when she doesn’t.

My arms were crushed between our bodies and I uncurled my fingers from his tee and pressed them flat against his chest as I whispered, “Please, get off me.”

“You want this,” he informed me.

MM, Kindle location 1258.

And, more explicitly, here:

“…the minute you gave me more of you, I took it, wanted even more and I didn’t keep that a secret, babe, and you fuckin’ know it. And you kept givin’ it. You coulda walked away and you didn’t. And along the way as we’ve been playin’ our game, you got your hooks in me and I got mine in you and you know that too.”

I definitely did if the heartache I’d experienced the last two days was anything to go by.

But I wasn’t going to tell him that.

MM, Kindle location 3248.

The way I’ve heard this described is that creating a good alpha hero demands a certain skill on the part of the author. If he’s going to dominate the heroine, then the reader needs to be assured that said heroine is in safe hands, and that reassurance is the author’s job. We must be sure that nothing the heroine isn’t okay with is going to happen to her, and readers that are content that the author (and thus the hero) is acting on behalf of the heroine’s best interests tend to be more willing to forgive things like non-consent. Her protests are part of the journey the story takes you on, because – well, you know she’s going to be okay.

This is key, and it’s something I find both reassuring and deeply troubling. On the one hand, I do find the assumption on the part of non-romance readers that the scenarios portrayed in these books are what their readers actually want or believe that they want kind of condescending. These people have brains in their heads like anybody else, and I don’t see many defenders of these books arguing that this is what they feel real life ought to be like. Some do, but not many that I’ve encountered.

The fantasy-escapism aspect of the work is lost on pretty much nobody, and I find it very strange that people don’t assume for other genres that it is. Do you put down a crime novel hoping you’re going to find a dead body in your garage? Fantasy fans might daydream about riding to war on the back of a dragon (I know I have) but I don’t think many people are seriously all that blind to the reality of what that might entail in a real-world context. Very few people would want to be placed in a fantasy scenario with the security of the story stripped away.

On the other hand…

I do understand the reservations non-romance-novel readers have about this kind of scenario being so widely marketed. There’s a crucial difference between, say, a crime thriller and a story about two people falling in love. Being a detective figuring out the culprit of a murder: well, that only happens to a very specific set of people. Falling in love happens all the time, everywhere, to people of all kinds and from all walks of life. A huge part of the appeal of romance and romantic plotlines is the near-universality of the experience. A lot of people are going to find the feelings described as part of that process relatable, even if the way it’s happening isn’t.

Which means that the boundary between fantasy-escapism and “this is the kind of thing I should look for in the world around me” is a lot easier to blur. The idea of a partner knowing what you want before you do, for example, has seeped into culture to an alarming degree, as anybody who’s picked up a women’s magazine will be able to tell you. Fifty Shades has pushed BDSM into the mainstream in a big way by marketing it as romantic. And there is no getting away from the fact that the normalisation of unhealthy relationship power dynamics in mainstream culture and mainstream romance feed off one another, and that is a process which is going to continue until the romance industry and the rest of mainstream culture recognise that it is happening.

I don’t have an easy answer for this one, honestly; it’s something I am still struggling with, and I’m running out of column space. It’s not for me or anybody else to tell people what they should be fantasising about, and I’m not sure that demanding clear delineations between “realistically romantic” and “don’t try this at home, kids!” in romance novels is either practically viable or particularly useful.

But the fact remains that some of this stuff is harmful, and its harmfulness, I find, gets dismissed by romance novel readers as “it’s just fantasy, it hurts no one!” and by non-romance novel readers as “it’s just romance novels, they’re too stupid to know any better!”. This is something that deserves deeper consideration and more frank discussion, whether you’re a fan of the romance novel or not.

Eesh, and I didn’t even get to any actual wolf packs! I’m sorry, paranormal genre. I’ll cover you someday, I promise.

What do you guys think? Do you like a bit of alphole in your hero? When does a book cross the line between fantastical goodness and creepy-ass weirdness?

Join me next time on Hopeless Reimantic, where I’ll be talking about…marriage! See you then.

  1. Ed’s Tiny Note: And indeed you can read two early BR ‘WTF is this alpha male business all about?’ posts from Sarah C here and Stephen B here! []

Images of an Iron Lady

2013 April 15
by Sarah Cook

I can’t write a political or historical retrospective on Thatcher, on her life or her works. If I did, it might come out like the Russell Brand piece, only a bit more Northern, a bit more reflective on her impact on feminism.

I’ve read and seen far too much already over the past few days, from endless eulogies in the papers through to angry words on the street and in the House of Commons. The truth is I am genuinely shaken by it. Like the Queen Mother, she was one of those figures we all suspected might go on forever, and her shadow was long. With it gone, one of the touchpoints for my personal politics is gone.

I started to think about how I might even begin to parse what has happened: I’m not sad, but I’ll admit I didn’t crack open the champagne personally; I merely drank someone else’s.So in a similar vein, I wanted to write not about her, but about representations of her.

Maggie’s Farm

Cover for Steve Bell's Maggie's Farm

I’m going to start with one of my favourite political cartoonists. Alongside his later portrayal of her puppeteering Tony Blair, comic artist Steve Bell also focuses on her controlling authority. He wrote a series called Maggie’s Farm which depicted her as completely insane – with trademark wonky eye and multiple exclamation points in her speech.

The comics, which reference Dylan’s song of the same title (which was in itself used as a protest song against Thatcher) were originally published in Time Out from 1979, and, to my eye, probably heavily influenced later depictions.

Spitting Image

Spitting Image's version of Thatcher

The first time I saw Spitting Image I was hooked, probably helped by the fact my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to watch it, and to this day I regret that it has gone off the air. Perhaps it’s because no satire is strong enough to be distinguished from the ridiculous facts of today’s government? Anyway, back to Thatcher.

The depiction of her was grotesque, but no more so than that of any other puppet on the show. That said, it was the nature of the grotesque that interested me.

She was ridiculed for her strength and controlling nature in the form of a horrific headmistress. It’s interesting to note that later John Major was ridiculed for his lack of strength.

But rather than this being portrayed as an essential part of her it was represented in reference to Thatcher as a woman  (note the ongoing references to her as “sir”). Her strength was ridiculed, in part, by presenting it as “unfeminine” and therefore funny or dangerous: a stereotype of women in politics that will no doubt take many years to overturn. As the series moved on she became less and less human, eventually turning into an alien monster.

The Old Iron Woman

The Old Iron Woman

Raymond Briggs delivers a rendition of the Falklands War in a way that is moving, vitriolic, frightening and humbling in his 1984 piece The Tin Pot Foreign General and The Old Iron Woman.

What I find particularly interesting here is how her depiction contrasts with that of Spitting Image. Both use the “non-human” references, but whereas the Spitting Image Thatcher is usually either asexual or very masculine, here she is quite the opposite. Guns and victory explosions fire from her breasts as she squats (in high heels, with rounded buttocks and suspenders, no less) over her land and nation in a parody of birth. The conflation of female and war-machine gives rise to a gross, highly sexualised fembot.

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep as Thatcher

I returned from holiday just over a year ago to find London distressingly covered in images of Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, with her icy blue eyes following me all over the place. It haunted me, in much the same way as it did our Rhian Jones (I’ll admit it, I couldn’t bring myself to see the film).

It was the glossiness of the whole thing that threw me, the vogue-ish fashion magazine stylings that worked their hardest to reunite those twin features of “female” and “powerful” which had created such horrors through both Spitting Image and at the pencil of Raymond Briggs. And they succeeded in being very flattering, through a combination of make-up and airbrushing.

Streep is noticeably less wrinkled and more attractively-styled than Thatcher, looking eerily like a better-looking sister. The situation was enhanced by Streep’s own acting ability, and a script which included scenes of feminine domesticity.

What next?

I never knew her. Never met her. I only understood her as a series of images and icons, on the television as a politician and in other representations of her, which are more numerous than I can contain in one article. Buzzfeed, for example, collected a list of songs about her. Like many other dead, famous people, over time she will fade from a real person, who nonetheless was one of the bogeymen of my childhood (alongside the boggle-faced baddie animals in Orm and Cheep) to being almost imaginary, an icon.

To me, she will always be the figurehead for all that is wrong with right wing thinking and the sort of “feminism” that claims it must be feminist if a woman is doing it. Those with opposing politics have put her on a pedestal. Other people will make her into other things.

I doubt we’ve seen the last representation, but I’ll be interested which version of Margaret Thatcher will stand the test of time, and which version we will be faced with next.

Strychnine and Stereotypes: Older Women in TV Murder Mysteries

2013 April 4
by Sarah Jackson

Won’t you have another cucumber sandwich? Why, I don’t know what you mean, they taste just fine to me…

I love the clichés of twee British TV murder mysteries – the village fete, the teacup switch, the gunshot in the dark room – but what I like best is the presence of lots of fantastic old ladies, a group which are underrepresented in nearly every other type of television genre.

In 1999, people over 60 made up 21 percent of the UK population, but just 7 percent of the television population (source) and in 2012 a BBC report (PDF) flagged the absence of older women on TV as a major problem.

I’ve said in another post that for the most part in popular culture, old women are given one of just two identities: dear old biddy or evil crone. In Twee British Murder there is a greater range of stereotypes to be found, although the biddy/crone dichotomy is still there. Through by no means a comprehensive list, I’ve identified five overlapping Twee British Murder character options for older women.

1) The Help

Rosalie Williams as Mrs Hudson

Rosalie Williams as Mrs Hudson. Image: Granada


An army of elderly female housekeepers, cooks, nurses, cleaners and secretaries form a vital part of the machinery of Twee British Murder.

Although they are rarely the killer, and tend to be only incidental victims (when they Know Too Much, for example) they have a vital dramatic function, especially as witnesses.

The cook remembers that someone different from usual offered to take the breakfast tray up to her mistress, the former nanny recalls a crucial detail from a suspect’s past…

It’s these long-suffering souls that make up the bulk of body-finders too, although they’re almost always questioned and dismissed with no further contribution except looking anxious.

But why are the servants and employees so swiftly ruled out? This 1928 article, 20 Rules for Writing Detective Fiction, states that:

A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

Of course! Servants are a bunch of crims already: making one of them the murderer would be TOO OBVIOUS.

Moving on. An atypical member of this category is Sherlock Holmes’ tolerant landlady, Mrs Hudson. This is from The Adventure of the Dying Detective:

The landlady stood in the deepest awe of him and never dared to interfere with him, however outrageous his proceedings might seem. She was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women.

I am a little obsessed with the 1980s Granada series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes. In this series, Mrs Hudson (played by Rosalie Williams) is an important part of the small ‘family’ which surrounds the detective. Here’s one of my favourite Mrs Hudson moments, from The Cardboard Box, at 4:40mins in:


2) Frail Rich Lady

Often bedridden, with elaborate medical care requirements, and generally found in a spooky old house surrounded by squabbling, grasping relatives, these women are often trying to make a last minute change to their will when they meet their demise.

Frail Rich Ladies tend to be victims, but can occasionally turns out to be killers. Letitia Blacklock in A Murder is Announced, Laura Welman in Sad Cypress, and Amelia Barrowby in How Does Your Garden Grow? are classic examples from the Christie canon, as is Emily Arundell from Dumb Witness.

Bearing in mind the underlying biddy/crone stereotype binary, most of the above examples are on the biddy side of things. But there’s a fabulous Frail Rich Lady getting her crone on in one of Baroness Orczy’s Lady Molly stories, The Woman in the Big Hat (PDF). She’s 12mins in:


3) Eccentric Spinster

Eccentric Spinsters are also occasionally widows. The important thing is that they have been manless long enough for their eccentricity to flourish.

This is my very favourite old lady character type, and one that I aspire to. One of the best examples is the three sisters in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis. Here they are having tea with Miss Marple, at 7:09 mins in:



I love how there’s a bit of a maiden, mother and crone thing going on, with Clothilde, the more bookish, stereotypable-as-mannish, serious one (crone), Anthea the ‘girly’, immature one (maiden) and their more well-adjusted sister Lavinia, who tries to keep everything under control (mother). Lavinia’s the one who had been married, of course, so she’s coded as noticeably more ‘normal’ than the other two.

The Bradbury-Scott sisters above are at the biddy end of the spinster spectrum, but there’s a fantastic crone version called Honoria Lyddiard in the Midsomer Murders episode Written In Blood. She’s at 5:28 mins in:



Eccentric Spinsters can be victims, witnesses or killers, and can often be found providing another dramatic function: introducing a supernatural, prophetic red herring.

This provides a contrast with the detective’s rational method and cheap thrills for the viewer, as well as obfuscating the sequence of events for both. Prunella Scales turns in a scene-stealing performance as psychic Eleanor Bunsall in another Midsomer Murders episode, Beyond the Grave, and in Dumb Witness one of the two Miss Tripps receives a message for Poirot, at 15:13mins in:



4) Village Busybody

A provincial murder mystery staple. Like the servants and staff, this character provides vital information and misinformation, clues and red herrings for viewers. Without this character, there might be no mystery at all. She is a key witness, frequently a victim because she’s seen or heard something she shouldn’t have, but never the killer.

Although she’s only middle-aged in the TV adaption, Caroline Sheppard is worth a mention because of Agatha Christie’s comment in her autobiography that:

It is possible that Miss Marple arose from the pleasure I had taken in portraying Dr Sheppard’s sister in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She had been my favourite character in the book – an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.

My New Year’s resolution this year was to get the word ‘acidulated’ into every tenth conversation.

While Caroline Sheppard is relatively harmless, her crone counterpart uses her knowledge to manipulate others. Mrs Rainbird is an extremely camp example of this in the Midsomer Murders pilot The Killings at Badger’s Drift at 22mins:


5) Wise Woman

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Image: BBC

*Puts on What Would Miss Marple Do? t-shirt*

There’s not enough space here to do her justice, and I haven’t managed to find the perfect clip, but I wanted to share this: in her autobiography Agatha Christie likens Miss Marple to her grandmother in that “though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”

That “frightening accuracy” is the hallmark of the Wise Woman, and Marple isn’t the only one in this role solving murders – I’d also put forward Gladys Mitchell’s creation Mrs Bradley.

The glamorous TV version of Mrs Bradley played by Diana Rigg departs pretty drastically from the description of her appearance in the books (she is emphatically witch-like: “She possessed nasty, dry, claw-like hands, and her arms, yellow and curiously repulsive, suggested the plucked wings of a fowl”). Nonetheless, she still provides a worthy crone counterpart to Miss Marple’s biddiness. In this clip, she’s driving away from her ex-husband’s funeral at 3:40mins:



Zoe Brennan, in her book The Older Woman in Recent Fiction, links both Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley (as well as other older women detectives such as Miss Silver and Miss Pym) with feminine archetypes, from fairytale witches to the Furies. This is a connection which Agatha Christie clearly had in mind when one character gives Marple the nickname ‘Nemesis’.



For some more info about why this all matters, have a look at Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism (PDF). It’s also worth noting that while Twee British Murder is good on age diversity and features a lot of women characters, it fails dismally across other diversity strands.