I’ve been meaning to write something about my trip to Australia for a while, but goodness, I took a lot of photos. This, however, is one little thing I did for me that I thought I’d share.
Sitting on a beach in Merimbula, Australia, looking out at the Pacific ocean, I read my favourite philosophical passage, in which Descartes begins the destruction of all his opinions, that he might start again from a solid foundation of first principles that cannot be doubted.
He employed his method of doubt, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation*, exploring the idea that it can be read as a form transcendental argument, i.e. he argues that certain fundamental truths can be certainly known because their truth is necessary for one to doubt anything at all, and therefore if one is doubting, the very act of doing so demonstrates their truth.
The First Meditation concerns itself solely with the destruction of Descartes’ uncertainly held opinions. The Second Meditation begins the task of building these up again with Descartes’ most famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Or, more accurately: I doubt, therefore there is something that doubts, and I am at minimum that thing that doubts.
I finish the reading after the dreaming argument, which I take to the be the most powerful argument in Descartes’s arsenal of demolition, and the most beautifully articulated.
Me holding my BA certificate shortly after graduating.
I can’t believe how amazing the Internet is. Within three hours of putting up my Go Fund Me I had met my initial target of raising £600 to get me to the end of the month. I’d also received just over £60 from very kind souls who directly donated using the tip jar to the right (—>). I then increased the goal to the £3,000 I would need to see me through to the end of my PhD, and within a day you wonderful people have got me to £945 – a third of the way there!
I’m overwhelmed by the kind and generous people who have already donated. It’s not only a relief, but a real motivator – I’m working on behalf of those who have donated to fund me, now. It’s amazing to know that you guys have faith in me – working in a vacuum can be so disheartening.
If I don’t receive any more I will still be incredibly grateful to those who have already donated, but if you can help me to the target of £3,000 it would mean I could focus almost entirely on my PhD for the next four months until completion. I wouldn’t need to spend time and energy and worry looking for further work. That would make such a difference.
That said, if you would prefer to get something in return for money, I am still accepting work – £3,000 is a bare minimum of what I need, and that’s based on the commitments to proofreading and copy-editing I have already made coming through. Full details of my rates and how to hire me are available on the Proofreading and Copy Editing page of my website.
I will also be thanking anyone who donates in the acknowledgements section of my PhD, and if you’d like a digital copy of my thesis I will be happy to send it to you. You can use the contact form of this blog, or DM me your details on Twitter.
Thank you again to everyone who has already donated.
I need help. Due to my long boughts of sickness and other complications over the last few years, I have run out of money. Not just a little: completely. This morning my bank rang and I’m unexpectedly over the overdraft limit by £47.24. I need to tell them how I’m going to get under than limit by the end of next week. And even if I do that, I don’t know where next month’s rent will come from.
I need £600 by the end of the month.
I really hope that things will pick up for me soon, but the truth is that I don’t know that they will. I don’t know how I get to the 30th of May 2015, which is my final submission date for my PhD.
I’m applying for work, but I’m not having any luck. I need help. So I’ve set up a Go Fund Me page. If you can, please donate whatever you can. If you can’t do that, please share this to people who can.
Or tip me. The tip jar is right over there in the sidebar. If you want to reward me for the work I do here on this site, you can just tip me. I do a lot fo work for free and I want it to be available for free, but the truth is that 7,000 people have watched my Existentialism and the Terminator video and none of them tipped me. And I really don’t want anyone to feel bad about that – I’m poor, I get it, not everyone can give. But if you can and you found something here that you value, I’d be super grateful if you would.
The advantage of the tip jar is that it goes straight to me. The disadvantage is that it won’t appear on the Go Fund Me progress bar. The Go Fund Me funds can take a week to transfer. But if I knew they were coming I could at least have something to tell the bank. Either way is a big help.
Hey, hey, hey! I promised you a podcast version of my Existentialism and the Terminator vid aaaages ago, but life got in the way. It’s here, though! And this is my first time using this file manager doo-hickey that’s supposed to allow you to download sexy shit like this podcast, so *fingers crossed* everything works.
Are you excited? I’m excited!
Anyway, if sitting watching a YouTube video of my face for 30mins was just too long for you, you can now listen to me wittering on as you go about your daily business.
A full transcript, complete with notes and references, is available on the previous post.
As always, if you enjoyed this and found value in it, please consider donating via PayPal using the Tip Jar in the sidebar —>
So, this has been a long time coming. I’ve been talking about my feelings about the Terminator movies (there are only two) for years to anyone who would listen (sorry). I once presented Terminator 2 to students as part of Nick Jones’s ‘Filmosophy’ project at the University of York, but 20mins wasn’t really enough to do it justice, and I wasn’t able to go into the more literary and visual aspects of the film. I also wrote a bit on the musical score over at the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse – I didn’t have space to discuss that, here, but you can go to GGSA to check it out.
But finally, finally I got my thoughts together and wrestled them into something that was more than a gush where I flail my hands and rant about lighting states. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
A transcript of the video is below, including full details of all texts mentioned, and I’ll be trying to get a podcast version up in the next few days – so if you don’t want to look at my ugly mug whilst learning about existentialism and robots, there are other options 🙂 .
Existentialism and the Terminator
Hi! I’m Ro Smith, and I’m here today to talk about existentialism and the Terminator, which is just one of my favourite topics in the world, OK?
I’m going to start with a little bit about me. I’m a philosopher and a science fiction writer and maybe the world’s biggest fan of Terminator 2. I’m currently writing up my PhD at the University of York, where I taught undergraduate philosophy for five years, and where I have, in fact, lectured on Terminator 2 as an existentialist masterpiece to actual real life students. I also have a background in English Literature and Media Studies and all of this has enabled me to really put together what it was that so moved me about T2 when I first saw it as a kid in the early 90s and couldn’t have put into words why exactly I loved it so much, but I did.
This video is about how existentialist themes are explored in the Terminator movies, why, and why I think this is so effective.
Whilst the Terminator has, in some sense, become a franchise, I take it that the first two films, written and directed by James Cameron, represent a cohesive vision and development of a philosophical thesis, quite separate from the later films, and the TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a film that became an instant favourite for me as a young girl. I was too young to see it at the cinema, but even so, I connected to it on a visceral level – one that went quite beyond the fact that it was about robots and time travel and apocalypse (some of my very favourite things). At the time I was quite unable to articulate exactly what it was about the movie that touched me so. I just felt like it recognised something deep inside me.
One of the really wonderful things I have gotten out of studying literature and media and philosophy, is an understanding of what is going on in a true masterpiece that sets to work on one’s emotions, taps into some deep puzzle one has wrestled with, or expresses a deeply held belief. This is what Cameron’s Terminator films achieve. And I hope that in this video I will be able to show you that these are more than just action films, or Arnie films, or violent blockbusters. And for those of you who always felt like there was something special going on, I hope I can help you to piece together exactly what that is.
One need not dig into subtext to find the central message of the movies. It is John Connor’s message to himself, given to his father, passed on to his mother, and then repeated to himself, and by extension to us: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ And it’s the meaning and grounding of this thought that I’m going to explore.
On the off-chance that anyone attending this video has not seen either film, one can briefly summarise them as follows: a company named Cyberdyne Systems creates an artificial intelligence: Skynet. When Skynet becomes sentient, its creators panic – they do not trust it to make decisions that will be in favour of humanity and they try to shut it down. In response, it uses its access to military systems to spark a nuclear war between Russia and the US. Human civilisation is destroyed. Skynet creates machines to hunt down and terminate the scattered survivors. John Connor leads the resistance, and he is targeted for termination. The machines having developed the capability for time travel, send a Terminator – a cyborg killing machine that appears human – back in time to kill John Connor’s mother before he is born. John seizes the time travel technology from the machines and sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother. Kyle Reese is killed, but not before he sleeps with Sarah Connor, John’s mother, conceiving of John himself. After a long and bloody pursuit, Sarah destroys the Terminator, crushing it in factory machinery.
In Terminator 2, another machine is sent back to kill John as a teenager. Sarah had raised him as a survivalist, but ultimately he was taken into the foster care system after Sarah was forced into mental treatment, her experiences of the first movie taken to be a delusion brought on by trauma. This time Future John sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him, and Sarah; John and the Terminator must work together against the new Terminator, the T-1000. John and the reprogrammed Terminator (a T-800 model) go to rescue Sarah from the mental institution, and find her in the middle of escaping by herself.
They do escape, but only just, as the T-1000 has predicted John’s moves. The power of the new terminator is daunting, and contemplating the danger to her son and the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Sarah recalls John’s message to her from the future: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Taking their future into her own hands, Sarah takes the fight to Cyberdyne itself. John and the T-800 catch up to Sarah just in time to prevent her killing Miles Dyson – the scientist most directly responsible for the development of Skynet. Together, they destroy the lab, and, following an epic chase sequence, they destroy the T-1000 itself, and Sarah aids the T-800 in ‘self-terminating’ to prevent his technology from being recovered.
In terms of the philosophy of time travel, it should be stressed, none of this makes sense. The terminators only exist because Skynet is developed based on the technology left over from the original Terminator. This is what we call a ‘bootstrap paradox’ – no one actually creates the Terminators, but their existence in time is self-creating. The same is true of John Connor himself – he only exists because he sent his own father back in time to sleep with his mother. The plot is also subject to a ‘grandfather paradox’ – if successful, Sarah’s actions in destroying the technology that arrived from the future mean that there is no war, John is not leader of the resistance, so his life is not under threat, and there is no time travel, and Kyle Reese doesn’t go back in time to have sex with his mother. The traditional grandfather paradox has one going back in time to kill one’s own grandfather, but this has the same effect – John Connor is never conceived.
Nevertheless, the very things that make the plot metaphysically implausible are thematically effective. Both John and the machines are self-actualising, quite literally. And Sarah’s self-actualising decisions to reject a future she does not choose become all the more striking against an apparent backdrop of determinism.
Let us set aside the metaphysics of time travel, then, and turn to existentialism.
Existentialism is a school of thought which came to prominence in the mid-twentieth century, especially in continental Europe. To many, it seemed nihilistic. Its thesis was that ‘existence precedes essence’, which is to say that there is no meaning to life, no significance to objects, no purpose that is predetermined. Meaning is not determined by God, or built into us by nature. This is existentialism’s negative thesis, and it shouldn’t be totally ignored. Sartre’s philosophical novel,Nausea, is named for the sense of sickening emptiness that can be provoked by confrontation with the brute existence of objects, the contemplation that the mere existence of things signifies nothing, the despair that can emerge from an understanding that there is no external force accountable for our actions or in charge of ensuring positive outcomes.
In a world that had seen the literal and metaphorical fallout of two world wars, the meaningless loss of life and destruction, the reduction of people and cities to ashes by the splitting of the atom – the breaking down of people into things – the bleakness of existentialist philosophy held a certain power for some. Whilst for others it was seen as overly negative – leading people into what was described as a ‘quietism of despair’, meaning that the despair at the lack of external purpose and meaning made people feel like there was no reason to do anything, no meaning to life at all.
Sartre’s famous lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ argues against this, and for the positive thesis of existentialism. That because meaning is not externally imposed, we are free to determine our own meaning, and to set our own life goals. This is intimidating, because it places sole responsibility for one’s actions upon one’s self. To blame God, or one’s genetics, or other people for one’s actions is to live in Bad Faith. To live in good faith, one must own one’s own actions, concede that one always has a choice, and that choosing one course of action over another is to give that action value, to recommend that action to other people. Good and bad are not lost simply because they are not determined by God or Nature, they are determined by people acting and recommending those actions to others, and in choosing to act only in ways that one would willingly recommend to others.
Sartre writes that the first principle of existentialism is ‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future, and is aware that it is doing so’, because it is us who decide who we will be, and we do so by our actions, and those actions matter because they determine a future – for oneself and others who must live in that future.
Which brings us back to our discussion of Cameron’s Terminator movies, and their literal and metaphorical message: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ Surely it is no accident that this is so closely mirrors Sartre’s words. ‘Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself’, ‘no fate but what we make for ourselves’.
TechNoir Lighting State No. 1: dark, shot through with often-strobing light.
These two aspects of existentialism – the bleakness being unable to find meaning and purpose in the world, and the positivity of self-determination, making one’s own decisions the determiners of meaning and purpose – are woven throughout the fabric of these two films. The far darker – again, literally and metaphorically – first movie, TheTerminator set out to create a new genre: TechNoir – a technicolour film in which lighting states were as symbolically significant as those employed in the film noir genre; which called on the same sense of stark bleakness, and which also played on the word ‘tech’ as used to mean technology. This is a self-determining act of Cameron that creates meaning for the film, and for us, as other people exposed to that action.
Lighting State No. 2: sunshine.
Shot almost exclusively at night, stark neon lights in the darkness evoke the darker world of Kyle Reese’s future, lit only by its laser fire. A dark world indeed, where the only light is designed to kill you. And this is a brutal film with a high body count. It’s very title, The Terminator, is the figure of death, and not a death with an afterlife, the death of simply termination. Of stopping. Finality. The only bright, sunny lighting states are associated with Sarah Connor, at the beginning of the movie, before she has been forged by her experiences, with her fluffy 80s hair and tie-dyed pink T-shirt – pink that will look more like blood stains towards the end, as she fights for her life in the dark.
Lighting State No. 3: sunset.
When the light comes back again it is sunset, which will be the dominant lighting state for Termintor 2. Sarah, literally pregnant with the future, having self-actualised in choosing to trust Reese, in sleeping with him, in killing the machine, sits in a jeep. She is literally and metaphorically going somewhere, but we don’t know where. That is for her to determine – we are not privy to her future, as it has not been determined yet. All we know is that a storm is coming.
Terminator 2, Lighting State 1: Night shot through with white and/or flashing lights.
Terminator 2 has three main lighting states. It has the dark-night-with-with-harsh-strobing-lights of the first movie, again recalling the doomed future of death and lasers. It also has a stark white light, associated with the clean technology of Cyberdyne and the empty clinicalness of the mental institution, in which others try to force their meanings and purposes upon Sarah, denying her respect for her rationality and ability to decide her own future. In this lighting state, the imprisoned and controlled Sarah is symbolically linked to the not-yet-conscious, controlled by others
Terminator 2, lighting state 2: clean, sterile, white light.
Skynet. And, as mentioned before, there is the dominant lighting-state of strong, warm, orange light. Even when it isn’t sunset, it looks like it is. It feels like it is.
We constantly feel as though we are on the edge of night, but not there yet. It’s a lighting state full of possibility – on the edge of light and dark. It captivates the sense that the future could go either way, that it is yet to be determined. The bright white light of Cyberdyne and the mental institution do not carry the usual codes for ‘good’ and ‘safe’ that white and light usually do,
Terminator 2 Lighting State No. 3: eternal sunset.
because they banish all shadows. There is no uncertainty. All is determined. They turn people – self-actualisers – into deterministic machines, devoid of free will.
In Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ he contrasts human beings, for whom existence precedes essence, with articles of manufacture, whose essence is determined by humans. A knife is a knife because humans design them for a purpose: to be used to cut things. Yet, equally, such articles lose their essence in the absence of humans to use them.
Terminator 2 brings the question of articles of manufacture vs self-determining minded beings to the fore. Skynet was a self-actualising AI, but always off screen. But in T2, Sarah removes the inhibition placed on the T-800 against learning. The T-800 is allowed to explore its own self-actualisation, and in doing so it comes to affect those around it; to build relationships. The T-800 may not have the ability to self-terminate, but he’s capable of bringing the matter to the attention of Sarah Connor – that her brief fantasy of having a father figure for John cannot be allowed without consequences for the world. That is a moral action, and action that affects others, and that recommends a moral stance to others.
It’s significant, too, that the advent of John Connor, the messiah-figure, on screen does not rob Sarah of her self-determination. These two movies put a woman at the heart of the action. In both films a woman saves the day, and it is, after all, Sarah to whom the message is directed, who ponders the philosophy that there is ‘no fate’ but what we make, and who decides that it is not enough to act reactively to defend her son, that she must attack Skynet herself.
This, too, is in keeping with the philosophy of existentialism. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work, The Second Sexexplores at length what existentialism means as a philosophy for women. Women whose ‘essence’ does not lie in their biology. Sex and gender are distinct, and even though Sarah Connor’s sex – represented by her ability to reproduce – is central to the plot, her femininity is fluid. Her transformation from a soft-haired, feminine waitress in pink to a hard-bodied, single-purposed warrior woman is iconic, and one of the most striking in cinema history.
It is also so presented as to be completely believable.
Moreover, she overturns the dominant horror trope of the 70s and 80s, where the virginal woman is the lone survivor. Sarah may survive where Kyle dies, but she does so after a rather explicit, but not exploitative, sex scene. Absolutely no shame about sex, here. And no sense that the action is being led by expectations, or, again, externally imposed purpose.
Rejection of film tropes is another form of rejected fatalism. A rejection of the narrow boundary available for the fates of women, but also for the fates of people of colour, too.
I’m going to presage this next section by emphasising that the films are not without their problematic aspects, and I will get to those, but I just want to talk about their positive aspects first, and how these relate to our theme of existentialist thought.
Bearing in mind that these are films from 1984 and 1991, it’s significant that both films feature atypical black male characters, and the second film features what appears to be a stable, happy black family. This is in contrast to tropes of dysfunction in the presentation of black family groups – single mothers, abusive or absent fathers. The Dysons are functional, intelligent, wealthy suburbanites, quite in contrast to the common presentation of black people as poor, violent, uneducated and disruptive. Miles Dyson is an authority figure in his work place, but he is also mild-mannered. He is a respected innovator in his field. He is a man around whom history turns. It’s quite an exceptional character, even today, where Barack Obama has been a Kennedy-like figure in terms of historical significance and popularity.
Moreover, in the first movie we have another kind, intelligent black authority figure, in the form of the chief of police. A long step away from the comedy-sidekick that remains a common role for black men to play today.
And these men have agency. Miles’s movement from terrified victim of Sarah Connor’s attack to acceptance and owning of the responsibility of his actions – of a particularly heroic act of good faith, where he might have been forgiven for saying that he could not possibly have anticipated the events that would follow from his work at Cyberdyne – is only second in heroism to the manner of his death – his self-sacrifice in following through, not only to save others, but to own that responsibility.
Whatever you might say of his death (and we will) it is not a cheap death.
But… he is yet another dead black man.
Arnie’s terminator also dies a hero’s death, but at least he gets to wait until the end of the movie to do it. The black man in the team of legends – the legend Kyle Reese was so desperate to meet, Sarah Connor; the super-human cyborg possessed of impossible strength; and the Christ-like Messiah, John Connor – Miles Dyson doesn’t get a legend, he doesn’t get extraordinary power. Miles Dyson gets human weakness, frailty, and the guilt of damning the whole human race.
There are other people of colour – the latino survivalists Sarah and Co. flee to. But no other main characters of colour.
By similar lights, for women, Sarah Connor is great, but she’s basically holding the candle for 52% of the population. Sure, we have Miles’s wife, who exists mostly to represent the kind of mother Sarah could have been. And there are some women amongst the survivalists. Along with Sarah’s friend from the first movie. Who has basically just has sex and dies. That’s about it. And the focus on strength-through-mothering is a problem shared with the other great female led films of the period: the Alien movies. Not that representation of mothers as strong is a bad thing, but for a long time the only area in which women were allowed to show strength was in protecting their children, tying a woman’s value to her reproductive function. Her strength an expression of the unnatural force with which a woman can respond when called upon by the bonds of motherly love. A lack of other strong women in the Terminator films means we have no opportunity to see women present strength in other ways.
Equally, good luck finding any LGBT characters. There are some interesting questions raised about alternative family structures, possibly an aromantic and asexual mother-father bond between Sarah and the T-800, but that’s about it.
Nevertheless, the foundational message of the movie is powerful. That we are all in charge of our own fates. Nobody goes to their deaths simply because they are a certain type of person. And even if death is unavoidable, you can choose how you die – Miles’s dignity (however problematic the circumstances) is inspirational. We are all on a journey – a black-top highway at night. We don’t know what we may come across along the way, but we have the freedom to decide which way we are going.
This is the quintessential existentialist message, explored and expressed through every aspect of the Terminator movies, and I commend them to you. If you haven’t watched them, I hope that this video will have persuaded you to take the time. If you have and you loved them, I hope this goes some way towards explaining what was so powerful in them.
Thanks for listening. I’ve been Ro Smith, and this has been Existentialism and the Terminator.
Cameron, James (1984), The Terminator, Helmdale Film Corporation, Pacific Western Productions
Cameron, James (1991), Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Carolco Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment, Pacific Western Studio Canal
I heard something on Radio 4 this morning that set a fire in my brain. It connected with all kinds of things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for the last few weeks – a bunch of ideas and threads from internet culture and international politics that suddenly aligned themselves and allowed me to step back and see the central point around which they were revolving. I knew I needed to write something about it.
People sometimes throw around the term ‘subjectivity’ in internet discussions, but often it is not clearly defined, so I’d like to start by giving a bit of context to fill in what I mean. As you probably know, if you’ve been around here much, I have a not-so-secret identity as a philosopher. More particularly, I study scepticism, and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical scepticism is the doubt of some foundational aspect of our knowledge – such as that there is an external world, or that there are other minds. The kind of scepticism that interests me is what we call ‘solipsistic external world scepticism’ – the thesis that I might be the only thinking being and the whole of the rest of the world might be a figment of my imagination. Scepticism is something most of us have thought about idly from time to time, and some of us (like me) may have worried about intensely for brief periods, but none of us (it is generally accepted) seem to believe in our day-to-day lives. Yet it is notoriously difficult to disprove. Why is that? Well, it is because we are, all of us, stuck inside our own minds. It is because we find ourselves unable to reason from the subjective to the objective.
By ‘subjective’, in this context we mean that which is unique to our own perspective: the thoughts and experiences that make up our individual world views. Sometimes ‘subjective’ is used dismissively, as a way of discrediting an opinion or ending discussions that have become uncomfortable: ‘That’s very subjective!’ one might declare, intending to imply that the opinion has no real basis in fact; or: ‘Oh, it’s all very subjective, really,’ one might say, ‘I can see we aren’t going to decide this’ as a way of holding off any objections that are being made to one’s view. But to be subjective does not necessarily mean to be ‘merely a matter of opinion’. The dismissive tone is induced by the inaccessibility of mental states to the perusal of others. ‘That’s just not funny!’ is declared, and another responds: ‘Well, humour is all very subjective – just because you don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t’. And maybe some things are subjective in this sense – some philosophers have argued that morality is subjective in this way – but it’s important to understand that merely being subjective does not entail that something is invalid, untrue, ephemeral, or to be dismissed.
For the subjective is as praised as it is derided. The history of modern analytic philosophy has been dominated by the Cartesian notion of certainty being grounded in the immediacy of thought. Experiences are untrustworthy – the senses are easily tricked – but thought is ‘directly’ revealed to the self. Although few would now except Cartesian infallibility for all thought (the rise of psychoanalysis has mostly put paid to that), the immediacy of thought and experience is persuasive, and most would hold at least certain types of thought or experience as clearly more certain than facts about the world, which can only be inferred through the veil of experience. Thus, as I can never experience your thoughts and your feelings directly, I can never know what it’s like to be you in the way that I know what it’s like to be me. The objective, here, may be more concrete, in that it is stable and accessible to all, but it is also less certainly known, only experienced through the filters shaped by ones own thoughts and experiences.
OK. Enough philosophy. What does this have to do with Radio 4? Well, as I walked to work this morning I tuned in to a discussion concerning Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping was selected as the next president of China on 8th November 2012. Peng Liyuan is a celebrity in her own right, being a ‘folk’ singer*, and Professor Delia Davin and Ross Terrill had been invited on the Today programme to discuss her in relation to Chinese politics. It was an odd segment. According to the Today website the discussion was supposed to ‘examine what role [women can] hope to achieve in Chinese politics today’, yet for most of the segment they discussed Peng Liyuan’s relationship to Xi Jinping with some comparisons to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Ross Terrill has written a book on Jiang Qing, and the majority of the questions were directed towards him, instead of Professor Davin, who is described as ‘an expert on modern Chinese society with a special focus on gender’, who was asked what sort of music Peng Liyuan plays. Ross Terrill’s main comment on Peng Liyuan was that she would do best to keep herself entirely seperate from the politics of her husband. I’m not sure he even wondered just who this would be best for, and, to be honest, until I read the precis of the segment on the website, I thought it was a segment on how Peng Liyuan’s existing fame would impact on Xi Jinping’s career, instead of a discussion of women in Chinese politics. I wondered what Mr Terrill thought of Hilary Clinton’s involvement in politics – would he say she should have kept her nose well out of it and focused on doing what would be most complimentary to her husband’s career?
This was bizarre in itself, but then, towards the end of the segment, when the question of chinese feminism was finally raised, the question was directed to the biographer, and not to the woman who is an expert on gender issues in modern Chinese society. I was flabbergasted when Terrill confidently bemoaned the lack of feminism in Chinese society, only able to reference three historical figures who had gained some power through their husbands in the distant past. This, to him, was Chinese feminism. John Humphreys, the presenter, seemed to be expecting this answer – well, of course, the Chinese are sexist, aren’t they? Not like us in the liberated West (where we ignore the female expert when discussing the question of women and power in favour of the male biographer). He allowed Professor Davin a brief comment in what was clearly supposed to be a sentence before the programme closed and handed over to the news. To my relief, she expressed the same shock I did. Indeed, she said something to the effect of ‘Well, I’m glad you did [give me the chance to speak] I wanted to shreik at that comment!’. Because anyone who knows the slightest bit about Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries should know that what Terrill said was patently ridiculous and insultingly dismissive.
I would never in a million years declare myself an expert on Chinese history or women in China, but then, I’ve never tried to write a book about it. What I have done is read a book about it. Wild Swans, to be precise. Wild Swans is written by Jung Chang, and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her grandmother was born in 1909 and was of the last generation to experience foot binding, she was also a concubine to a warlord. Her mother grew up in an age of turmoil and invasion. Jung Chang recalls that her mother ‘made up her mind to choose her own husband’ having become ‘disenfranchised with the treatment of women and the system of concubinage (see p. 81). Both the Kuomintang and then the Communists offered ideologies that appealed to the liberation of women, and her mother and father joined the Communist party. One of the most moving passages is chapter seven ‘”Going through the Five Mountain Passages” My Mother’s Long March (1949-1950)’, in which Jung Chang’s mother miscarries her first child, having been forced to march in harsh conditions and all weathers despite her evident illness. The reason? Because the Communist Party believed that men and women were equal, and that a woman should therefore be able to march as well as a man, regardless of the conditions.
All of which is not to say that Chinese feminism is a paragon to be emulated. The tale of Jung Chang’s mother’s long march illustrates this with horrifying clarity. There are hard lessons to be learnt here, in that equality of rights can mean respecting that a pregnant woman has different needs to a strong young man – we should not forbid her any and all activities, but this does not mean ignoring her medical needs, or the strains pregnancy puts on a body. The point is that far from being limited to a tiny number of women who gained power through marriage in the distant past, what Chinese recent history offers is a rich and very complicated story of feminist struggle, in many ways more dramatic than that which the ‘West’ has gone through. There is a strong impression that the extreme oppression of women’s lives in the society of foot binding and concubines led to an equally extreme position in the rejection of old attitudes under the new Communist regime.
And this was a thing of which I had no idea until I read Wild Swans. In fact, almost all the Chinese history I know I got from reading Wild Swans. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that was my education. A little bit on the terracotta army, and then it’s Romans, Normans, Tudors and Stuarts. Entirely Eurocentric, and largely Anglocentric. What reading Wild Swans gave me was an insight into someone else’s subjectivity. And boy, did it have an impact. For the first time history came alive to me and I understood why it was important – the value it has in enabling us to understand each other, and where we have come from. Since then I have eaten up history where and when I can find it. It’s been a bit of a random enterprise – an audio course on Ancient Egypt here, a history of Russia there – but I now understand how little I know about the world outside of my own little sphere of time and space, and I’m seeking to correct that. I’m seeking to expand my understanding of other people’s subjectivity.
And yet, a so-called expert on a programme about women and China apparently knew none of this – had no idea that there had been a feminist revolution in China, just as there had been a cultural one. Clearly had never read Wild Swans. And I remembered how I had read Wild Swans and thought that everyone should read it, and particularly that men, and ‘Western’ men should read it… and that there was a very good chance that Wild Swans would mostly be read by women.
Which is not to say that no men would seek the book out or would read it when it was recommended. I recommended it to my ex-boyfriend and he loved it and bought me Jung Chang’s biography of Mao for my birthday as a result. It’s that men are less likely to find it on their own, less likely to pick it up when it is recommended by women. In the same way that a male friend once laughed at me when I asked if he had caught an interesting segment that had been on Woman’s Hour. I forget the content, but it had been relevant to his interests. He laughed because of course he hadn’t heard it – of course: it was Woman’s Hour. And I have often thought, since then, that a lot of the content of Woman’s Hour is stuff that men should hear, and that most never will.
This is not to condemn men. I have a love-hate relationship with Woman’s Hour, as I think many women do. It is important that many of the issues raised on the programme are given time to be aired, and there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t be if that time were not set aside for ‘women’s’ issues. And yet by labeling them as ‘women’s’ issues it is only natural than men should feel alienated from them. They are being told that this hour is not for them, even that it is composed of content that they will never really understand. It suggests that there is a special women’s subjectivity from which men can only ever be on the outside looking in.
And yet, I often feel alienated by the content and views expressed on Woman’s Hour. I don’t have a family and have no interest in having one, yet a very great deal of the content seems less ‘women’s’ issues than ‘parents’ issues, and it seems to me that by treating these issues as belonging to a special ‘women’s’ domain we reinforce the idea that raising a family is really a women’s business. And yet – and yet I’ve also come to realise that there is a value to my listening to experiences and troubles that are utterly alien to me. I’ll never understand motherhood from the inside – isn’t it important for me to take the time out, sometimes, and listen to what mothers have to say, to try to understand their points of view? Their issues? I think it is, and it is equally important that men do so, too, but these are views and issues that have been shoved into my domain in a way that they are not projected into most men’s. It’s a problem.
It’s a problem we also see reflected in the other big international politics event that has sent the news networks a flurry: the US presidential election. Some of you may have read my piece responding to the evidence that if only white men had voted, Romney would have won by a landslide. I echo a view that has been making a lot of noise since the election. It’s not simply that white men voted overwhelmingly for Romney, despite his terrifying gender and race politics, it’s that Romney supporters were genuinely shell-shocked that he didn’t win, as documented on whitepeoplemourningromney.tumblr.com. It never occurred to them because most Romney voters were part of a privileged world in which they had secluded themselves from dissenting views in the belief that dissent could only ever come from minorities. They had consistently ignored the views of feminists, black voters, hispanic voters, gay voters, transgender voters etc. etc. They even ignored the polls that told them these people were going to turn out in such numbers that Obama would have a clear victory. Why? Because they assumed they knew better about other people’s subjectivity, so they didn’t even stop to listen when people like Nate Silver told them they were wrong. Leading to the simply wonderful moment when Megyn Kelly asked Carl Rove, when he persisted in denying the truth: ‘Is that math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?’
Escher Girls records the sexism endemic in the depiction of women in comics, countering the oft repeated arguments that ‘male superheroes wear skin-tight clothing too’ and ‘It’s really just Rob Liefeld, and he draws men stupidly too’. The creator of Escher Girls has said that she had heard the latter point so often that she deliberately didn’t use any Rob Liefeld images until she had posted several hundred images by other artists. The point of Escher Girls is not that all of the poses are impossible (although most of them are) as that women drawn so routinely in such ridiculously sexualised manners that people have stopped noticing just how far much of the industry has departed from reality. And in the this centrally collected place distinctly sexist trends emerge that show that the poses of women in comics (in the vast majority) differ wildly from the poses of men. Check out the ‘Offenses‘ section of the tags to see what I mean – in particular ‘ridiculous fighting stances‘.
Academic Men Explain Things To Me is a much newer Tumblr, posting accounts from female academics who find themselves patronised by male colleagues in a way that clearly differs from how these men would treat a male colleague. This is the phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘mansplaining’. The idea came to prominence in 2008 with Rebecca Solnit’s article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘, although I didn’t know that when I first heard it. In fact, it was a male friend who first introduced me to the term – we were having a discussion in the perilous depths of FanFicRants, and he was worried that he might be coming across as ‘mansplaining’ (he wasn’t, but I still appreciate that he asked). For those unfamiliar, FanFicRants is an odd place. A LiveJournal community so prone to volatility by the inflammatory nature of its subject matter that its denizens have become some of the most self-aware people I have known on the Internet. Not all, I hasten to add, not by a long stretch! But the fact that if you’re going to rant you should be able to take the flack has meant that it is populated by a bunch of outspoken people who will tell you when you’re wrong. I learnt a lot from them. The JournalFen community, FandomWank, has developed a similar culture.
@everydaysexism works similarly, but more broadly, retweeting the experiences of casual (and not so casual) sexism that women have to go through. The effect is a more thoroughly compelling impression of the cumulative grind of casual oppression that women endure much more powerfully than one woman could convey to a male companion by saying ‘But you don’t understand – it may seem like nothing to you, but I have to live with this every day!’
And yet I worry about these projects. I have the sense (I don’t know how one could possibly know for sure) that most of the followers of Escher Girls and Mansplaining are women. It’s not without value. There’s an intense relief in seeing woman after woman describe an experience so familiar to you and yet so rarely acknowledged until recently. ‘Here – here!’ I say to myself. ‘Here is proof – it’s NOT just me and it’s NOT just sometimes, this shit is everywhere‘. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a familiar experience for most women – we are taught to doubt our own judgements and our own experiences – our own subjectivity – because we are surrounded by men, often in positions of authority, telling us that our experiences are invalid – that we must be wrong, that they can judge what’s going on in our own minds better than we can. It’s really, really important to have resources like this to begin to unpick this ingrained psychological damage. I think one of the most valuable things the Internet has done has been to enable underprivileged people who would usually be silenced by the privileged to get together, grow in confidence via shared experience, and present that experience to a wider world. But it’s only half the story. Men need to listen to these accounts too.
Again, I am aware that some already do so – I am happy to know a great many decent men who keep themselves informed and go out of their way to challenge themselves. Alas, they are still not the majority. What we need to ensure is that these blogs – these collections of experiences – do not become like Woman’s Hour. That they do not alienate men by self-designating as female-only zones. I’m not entirely sure how we do that. I think some of the solution may evolve on its own. I really like the way the ‘redraws’ aspect of Escher Girls has developed to be a dominant theme. The blog no longer simply criticises sexist work; readers send in their attempts to redraw the artwork in a way that preserves the content of the action – even the sexiness of the woman – without the back-breaking sexist overtones. It’s no longer about simply saying ‘Look, this is wrong!’, it’s also about saying ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do together to make this right’.
But at the end of the day I think it still takes a little effort – we always have to go a little out of our way to expand our perspectives. You have to want to understand the subjectivity of the other. Wild Swans gave me a kick up the arse, and I’ve had a few more along the way. All I can say is that I don’t regret them. The only thing I regret is that I have not done more to understand other people. We have to keep on trying. I hope that the short, sharp, shock of the American election to the Republican party will give them the cause for reflection that I’ve seen people talking about on the news and the blogosphere. But I’m not holding my breath. Change doesn’t happen without action, and if you rely on other people to change around you things will either stay much the same as they have before, or you’ll be left behind.
* Professor Delia Davin suggested that her songs are too patriotic to be truly termed folk music.
[Edit: People asked me on Twitter to write a follow-up post linking this to the privilege issues in Geek Culture at the moment. I had originally intended to include something making the connections more explicit in this post, but I was pretty tired by the time I was finished, and the post was already pretty long. I did, however, make a comment following Escher Girls’s reply to Tony Harris’s intensely sexist rant about ‘Fake Geek Girls’ over at my Tumblr that makes these points explicit, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on the matter you can check them out there.]