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Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of

A little less than 4 weeks ago, I had my second child, a daughter. I am over the moon to have her, of course (although all the comments about how wonderful a “pigeon pair” is or how I “can stop now” got old fast and made me extremely defensive of the imaginary little boy she might have been) and yes, I confess I have already been shopping for dresses and added butterflies to her bedroom wall. But she’s less than a month old, not expressing preferences for what to wear or play with or do, and frankly until nappy change time she’s no different to a newborn boy. I want to keep it somewhat gender-neutral and treat her the same as our son, but at the same time, I’m afraid of the new set of challenges that I feel like she’ll face that he won’t. Somehow we now live in a world where right from birth, raising a child means picking a side in any number of gender debates, navigating a whole politics of parenting, and trying to get the adults around you to be a part of that.

It starts with names. Now, I could write a separate blog post about names, because I’m one of those people who has a whole rule list about naming children and really wouldn’t object if it was enforced on others somehow. But rather than get in to the whole list, I’ll stick to talking girls and boys: I like gendered names. I like my girl’s names on girls and I like my boy’s names to stay on boys. I don’t object to androgynous names per se, I wouldn’t see them banned or anything.  I object to how they never started out androgynous and they very rarely stay androgynous. In 1915, a baby called Quinn was 99.9% likely to be a boy; in 2010 it was 51% girls – pretty much the definition of a unisex name. But just two years later in 2012 86% of little Quinns were female (I think Glee had a part to play in all of this). That’s an extremely quick evolution, but this list shows just how many names that were considered “unisex” at some point are now firmly in the girl’s camp (when was the last time you met a male Allison?). And it’s pretty rare for it to go the other way, although boy-unisex-boy again does happen occasionally. So, what bothers me about people who call their daughters Ryan or Maxwell is that they’re rarely calling their sons Abigail or Lucy. They want a “strong” name for their little girl, they want her resume to make it to the interview pile, and they know that giving their son a “girly” name is likely to have him embarrassed or beaten up a lot at school. And now the boy’s list is getting shorter and consequently a lot of classic boys names seem boring and overused. So I stuck to a feminine name for my little girl, one that historically began as a girl’s name and stayed that way. The plus side about this issue in the “to gender or not to gender” question is that there’s only two people who have to agree. Announce the name at birth and 99% of people will go ahead and call the kid your chosen name.

So then the baby is born and named, and now the issue is clothes. Because let’s face it, all a newborn does is eat, sleep and poop, so there’s nothing much to do except feed them, dress them (frequently, if they’re a spewer or a poonami baby) and then look at them or show them off to your friends. In the early days, a lot of time is spent focusing on what the kid looks like and everybody who likes shopping loves shopping for tiny baby clothes. I was never much of a “girly” girl, and so I always thought I would get stuck if I had a daughter who was. I don’t know what I’m going to do when she’s a preschooler and wants to paint her nails, because I don’t own a single bottle of nail varnish. When she’s old enough to tell me what she wants to wear, it might be tutus and sparkly tops, dresses and frills, in which case I guess that’s what we’ll buy. But I always wanted to avoid that stuff in the early years. Then I noticed the pink invasion. Pink would be fine if it was treated the same as blue is for boys – if it was one, albeit gendered, option. We were given blue clothes when our son was born. We were also given clothes in green, red, brown, black, white. We were given obvious “boy’s clothes”, collared shirts or outfits with trucks on them, things proclaiming how great Dad is and all that. They weren’t all blue. In fact, looking at his wardrobe now, less than a third of it is blue, and I never made a conscious effort to avoid it. Pink is a different story. My dislike for pink grew from pink toys (we’ll get to that) and was a little like going out for dinner with single friends on Valentine’s Day – a protest to something much more than a genuine desire to spend a fortune on restaurant food. I don’t actually hate the colour pink and I think some pink clothes can be delicate and beautiful, but I wanted the same variety that my son got and I was indignant that the shops would not offer it to me. I objected passionately to this one facet of gendering (pink), while going along with others (dresses etc) and I appeared completely irrational as a result. I found myself declaring that if we ever had a daughter, our house would be a pink-free zone. Ha. Well, I’m yet to personally purchase anything pink for her, sure. I’ve gone out of my way to find blue and white and red dresses, picked up a few Minnie Mouse bargains or navy clothes with hearts on them, and of course utilised the wardrobe full of clothes we still had from our first baby. But if you have people who love you and want to celebrate with you, and those people buy gifts, and you’re not a horrible person who throws out the generous gestures of people you care about, your house will not be a pink-free zone. 100% of people who gave us a present bought something pink. Marketing won this round.

The next battle that I’m gearing up to fight is the one that started the anti-pink sentiment in the first place, and the one that leaves me most confused, anxious and envious of all-boy mums. Toys. Now, I’ve always been against the idea of limiting what children can or “should” play with based on what’s between their legs. I’m a fan of this info graphic:

 boys girls toys

So I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not talking about withholding dolls from my daughter or anything like that (my son has two, so that’d be hard to do anyway). I always thought the idea of “girl” toys and “boy” toys was a bit silly, because I have plenty of memories of my brother’s teddy bears sitting alongside my cabbage patch kid while we played mums and dads or schools or whatever. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a girl who picks the fairy wings over the fireman’s hat in her dress-up box. No, what bothers me is this:

 

Toys that were never traditionally considered “boy” toys in the first place are now being made in a “girl” version. Sure, chuck some pink and purple blocks in the mixed box of Lego, add some variety and appeal to the kids for whom pink is a favourite colour, great idea – oh wait, if I want the pink ones I need to buy a whole different set? This is marketing ordinary, creative toys, often toys designed for preschoolers and toddlers, in such a way as to exclude boys and simultaneously imply that girls shouldn’t play with the non-pink version.  When I was a kid, it’s not like all us girls were running around going “oh, I’d love to play with that if only there was a girl version”. This stuff wasn’t created to meet a need in the market, it was created to make a need, so that parents like me who already have a red cozy coupe for our son might feel the need to buy another for our daughter. And it makes me oh so angry, that businesses want my child to feel different, to be limited, to turn “pretty” and “feminine” into words that decide whether something is acceptable for her or not, so that they can make more money from her.

So I’m hurtling along, flying toward the anti-gendering, feminist angry non-consumer and then I hit… This piece about a new “average proportion” barbie-style doll. Oh Barbie. How you have become the focus of all our body image problems.  I’m thinking “oh yes, I’ll be avoiding Barbies at all costs. Even worse are those Bratz dolls. Not a role model I want for my child.” But I don’t really know anyone who aspired to look like Barbie in the first place. Have her wardrobe, perhaps. Barbie is a fashion doll, her figure was designed so that all the clothes she wore would have shape to them despite folds or seams or elastic waists, not so that she’d look realistic naked. But should we be encouraging fashion dolls in the first place, if they start making young girls obsess about clothing and slim figures? But really, dressing and undressing gets boring after a while, what games do kids play with Barbie anyhow? I know women who have fond memories of Car Crash Barbie, Earthquake Barbie, Ghost Hunter Barbie, Serial Killer Ken, and of course, Lesbian Sex Barbie. But can’t they do that with a different doll, what do they need Barbies for? And on it goes. You can overthink it all until you go crazy. Don’t get me started on Disney. There’s the Big Corporation taking advantage of little girls, the Pink and Sparkly obsession, the 1950s gender roles; they are perhaps the biggest offender of my Girl Toy problems. And then there’s my own absolute love of Disney movies. Am I a sell-out if Bambi pyjamas are ok but pink Lego isn’t?

What ever happened to toys just being toys?

So that’s it. My 4 week insight into what it’s like to have a daughter: exhausting. But she’s asleep beside me as I’m typing this and I realise that the reason I care about all of this, the reason I’ll keep overthinking it and not just give in to whatever is easiest, is that she’s perfect. She’s worth being exhausted for.

A bookless future

I wrote this over a year ago for a blogging prize and linked it at the time, but haven’t posted the full text until now. The topic was “in the future, people will cease to own books”. Here are (were?) my thoughts.

 

In the future people will cease to own books. Or they’ll own fewer books than they do now. Or they’ll own just as many as they do now. I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. That might seem surprising – I am, after all, an English teacher and an aspiring writer – but I believe that I can still be those things in a world without books. A musician can still be valuable and popular in a world where vinyl records are collector’s items, where cassettes are laughable and even CDs have been overtaken by mp3 files. In the future, perhaps there won’t be books, but there will still be literature.

There exists in our society a kind of dichotomy when it comes to technology: both a fevered acceptance of the new and nostalgia for the old. I recently received an internet meme sent from my husband’s ipad that commented how “kids these days” don’t recognise what the “save” icon on Microsoft Word is supposed to represent. In the staffroom, teachers trawl the internet for their next lesson plan and upload topic quizzes to moodle and edmodo, simultaneously blaming the internet for their students’ lack of interest in the classics.

So if there won’t be books, what will there be? Obviously ebooks are the first alternative that comes to mind. But just as print newspapers are slowly being replaced by online equivalents, updated hourly and with space for reader comments, the future of writing is not simply a change in physical format. There is a demand for greater interactivity, where the “death of the author” is made explicit by visible reader involvement. There is a demand for user-control, where readers can decide what to read in what order and what to skip over altogether. There is a demand for instant gratification, where readers can have new information (or new stories) in their hands within seconds of it being written. There is a demand for evolution.

Naturally, the expectation is that much of this evolution will occur on the internet. Blogs, wikis and interactive novels are already stepping into those spaces, just as web series are taking up a place in the world of film. However there are also forms of publication that are not permanently linked to the internet, such as interactive ebooks, ipad and android applications, that have a place in the growing alternatives to traditional books. As with internet publication, these models offer an opportunity for cheap, sometimes free, self-publication and mass marketability.

The idea is not without its pitfalls. Internet publication means more opportunity for copyright fraud, less recognition (and usually money) for the author, less regulation and a greater abundance of poor quality fiction to sift through. Sometimes well written gems hide on a blog page while a piece of fan fiction skyrockets to stardom, makes it to print and cashes in millions. It seems desperately unfair, especially to those who have spent several years with editors and agents attempting to get a first novel onto the desk of a publisher. But it also offers a platform for that new novelist to try to make a name for themselves. It offers the reader a chance to sample works that might interest them without having to part with their money or return to the library if they are disappointed. And for the fan or amateur critic, it offers an opportunity to be involved in the editing process or the creation of a sequel.

For the traditional reader or writer, these ideas may seem confronting, almost a violation of an art form. Like digital photography and Photoshop, there will be those who argue that interactive literature is not true literature. Likewise there will probably always be purists who enjoy old media for what it is. But for educators, perhaps rather than seeing this as the demise of books, we should see this as an opportunity for a new era of literature. We are, after all, growing the next generation of writers. Instead of grooming them to be the audience we want, perhaps we should be asking them how they can meet the demands of an audience made up of their peers. The existence of Virginia Woolf did not throw Jane Austen into oblivion. Likewise, if we want the future to be filled with good writing, let’s teach people how to write well in the new formats and purposes that they’re drawn to.

The Great Gun Debate and why Aussies are not Yanks

Recently The Daily Show in America aired a 3-part segment comparing Australia’s gun laws under John Howard to the situation in the US, where it is difficult to pass any kind of strict firearm legislation. The argument was that it worked for us – no mass shootings in the 17 years since the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) – so why were so many Americans saying that gun control doesn’t work? It’s not an uncommon argument, and certainly in Australia it’s pulled out every time we hear news of another mass shooting in the US.

I don’t like guns, I have no desire to own a gun, and the prevalence of guns is one of the reasons I would not want to live in America. However, I do find the politics of it all very interesting, and I think there are a few important facts that tend to be conveniently left out:

  1. It is illegal to own, use and possess a handgun in Australia without a licence to do so and has been the case long before John Howard and his National Firearms Agreement of 1996.
  2. The perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre (the catalyst for the NFA) bought his firearms without holding the relevant licence, making his purchase illegal even without the new laws.
  3. New Zealand, which did not enact similar gun laws, has also had no mass shootings since 1997 and had prior shootings at a similar rate to Australia.
  4. In Australia, gun laws usually gain the support of both major parties before they are passed. This was certainly true of the NFA, which was passed by a conservative government.
  5. Wikipedia tells me that up to 85% of the Australian public supported the proposed legislation before it passed. The remaining 15% certainly had a loud voice and represented a reasonably large portion of the Liberal Party voters (our conservative party, just to confuse any international readers), but support for gun control was far more unified than The Daily Show would have us believe.

Why am I writing this, when I’m anti-gun myself? Because Australians need to stop being so smug about our gun laws whenever there’s a tragedy across the ocean. Because if Americans are going to point to us to further their political agenda, they need to be fully informed about us. And because there are more important differences between our two countries that we should be thinking about in this debate.

Here is the real difference between Australia and America:

  • I don’t have many memories before Port Arthur, but as far as I can recall I had never seen a gun anywhere other than on TV or holstered in a police officer’s belt. In speaking to other Aussies who think our gun control is too strict, the complaints come from farmers, hunters and target shooters. The idea of guns in suburbia for self-defence is foreign to us.
  • I’ll amend that. The idea of gun ownership for self-defence is foreign to us, regardless of whether you live in an urban or rural environment.
  • About 5 years after Captain Cook set foot on Australian soil, America was in a civil war. The Bill of Rights was ratified the same year as our Third Fleet of convicts was pulling in. There is more than a century of history and cultural change between America’s 2nd Amendment and Australia becoming a Federation, meaning the American idea of a “right” to guns was firmly embedded over there before we’d had much of a chance to think of national politics at all.
  • After almost another century of cultural change, Australians voted on whether to become a republic or not. This was done silently and peacefully with every Australian adult (regardless of race, gender, physical strength or ability to aim) having equal say. The British monarchy and their representatives had already indicated that they would allow it if that’s what we wanted. At no point during the process did we need to reach for guns to throw off our oppressors, crying “death or freedom”.
  • We voted no.
  • Presidential vs parliamentary systems of democracy. I tried to get in to a little research to summarise what I’m trying to say here, but there is a very complex web of information and opinion about the two systems that would take weeks to explain. Needless to say, they’re not the same, and they have a significant impact on how people view a) the potential for government breakdown, b) individualism and c) politics as a whole.
  • The vast majority of Australians, regardless of their political leanings, do not object to mandatory breath tests when pulled over by police. We actually have random breath tests for no reason other than you happened to be driving along that particular stretch of road. We don’t really complain about this. There is, amongst sections of the American population, a sense that personal freedoms are the be all and end all, that independence includes being independent of the needs (although not the rights) of others. Aussies mistake this as selfishness, but it’s not that cruel or simple. In addition to their own civil war history, a large proportion of America’s population migrated  to “the land of opportunity” from other places of oppression. The emphasis on personal freedom (including the freedom to own whatever guns you want) is, in my opinion, more like a kind of overcorrection or even an excessive form of patriotism.

To put it simply: the difference between Australia and America is not gun laws, but gun culture. At times, legal change influences cultural change (e.g. workplace safety standards). At other times, cultural change influences legal change (e.g. gay marriage). I don’t pretend to know what the best way forward is for Americans, but as an Australian I do think we need to stop smugly touting our gun laws as the answer to all of America’s problems. They did not drastically change our culture. They changed because of our culture.

Dancing Under the Sea

A creative essay about sisters.

“If Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have had hers cut off too.”

-          Jane Austen’s mother

I was fifteen. It was year eleven of high school and I confessed to my extension English teacher that I had never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In retrospect, this was nothing for a normal teenage girl to be ashamed of, but then, I did not attend a normal school. My English teacher, slightly horrified by my admission, promptly lent me a copy. It was a cliché – faded cover, worn pages, a name inscribed in illegible cursive. It was well-loved.

A decade into the twenty-first century, Pride and Prejudice is beginning to read more like fantasy than the realist fiction it was written to be. And yet, Austen is more popular now than when she was first published. There are many theories as to why (and many essays on the topic, I am sure), ranging from its social significance to the appeal of the strong and silent hero. For me, however, it is not the romanticized Mr Darcy that holds my interest, nor the almost-feminist protagonist. It is the relationship between sisters.

Sisterhood is a strange phenomenon. A close friend will be affectionately called our “sister” and yet for many people, blood relations are not close at all. Throughout my childhood I recall the coveted position was that of the only child. Siblings meant fights, sharing cars, teasing, embarrassing secrets revealed to all. The only child had the full attention of his or her parents and the full weight of their wallet. Friends with siblings celebrated the day that they were given their own bedroom. I, however, celebrated the day my bedroom became a study and my sister and I shared. We were teenagers, supposed to be fighting over stealing each other’s clothes (not that any of my sister’s petite clothes could ever fit me). Instead, we went to bed at the same time so that we could talk deep into the night like ten-year-olds at their first sleepover party. “Gute nacht,” I would say, when I was tired enough for sleep. “Bonne nuit,” she would reply.

As adults, few sisters remain rivals. The expectation is that a sister is a friend, someone to respect and indeed love. There is an obligation to have her as bridesmaid, to see each other at major holidays, to share responsibility for an ageing generation of parents. I recognise these obligations and find myself resenting them; they seem to degrade our friendship, as though it, too, exists simply because it has to. When I asked my sister to be my Maid of Honour, I did not see it as a question for my sibling, sparked by custom and etiquette. I was asking my best friend. I wanted her to sit with me in the same living room we had watched The Little Mermaid in as children and to glue ribbon onto invitations, eating M&Ms. She assured me I would be beautiful despite a terrible make-up trial and she helped me to laugh when the bridesmaid’s dresses finally arrived at 10am the morning of the event. I wanted her to be the last person I saw before I walked down the aisle with our father, the last person to hug me as a single woman.

My elder sister is my favourite person in the world. Perhaps that is unfair to my other family and friends – but it is true. There are no words that can adequately describe the complexities of our relationship, a fusion of lives, a shared history, a library of advice and dreams. She is my opposite and my complement, the one I protect like a mother and turn to like a daughter. When I read Pride and Prejudice, or indeed any book that contains sisters, I cannot help but judge their relationship against ours.

The Bennet family of Pride and Prejudice contains five sisters with varying levels of closeness. It is perhaps a model for family life, a promise that friendships like Jane and Elizabeth’s exist, but a reminder that they are uncommon. The three younger sisters almost seem superfluous, there only to highlight the rare closeness between Elizabeth and Jane (and to drive the storyline involving Mr Wickham). Austen herself had six brothers, all of whom she was friendly with, but not exceptionally so. Cassandra Austen was the only other girl in the family and she and Jane adored each other. She was perhaps the inspiration for the eldest Bennet sisters, and certainly for some of Jane’s earlier works.

Jane and Cassandra Austen lived together for most of their adult life. Following the premature death of Cassandra’s fiancé, both remained unmarried and they shared not only a house but a bedroom, until Jane’s death in 1817. It has been suggested that this is the reason for their closeness, but as anybody with a best friend knows, distance is no obstacle. My sister and I attended different schools and different universities. She moved out of home when I was nineteen. We now live 300km from each other and visits are not nearly frequent enough. And yet – it is she who travelled Europe with me, choosing two days at Disneyland Paris over the more cultural experience of the Louvre. It is she who keeps me up to date with the life of my kindergarten friend and she who buys me gifts so well-suited that I am pleasantly reminded of the shared DNA we must have. To remain in the same bedroom, forever sending each other to sleep in foreign languages, would have been special, there is no doubt. But there is also no doubt in my mind that Jane and Cassandra Austen did not need the same address to remain confidantes and best friends.

Back in year eleven, first reading Pride and Prejudice, my sister would have played the role of Jane Bennet. She was always the quietest at the dinner table, overpowered by myself and our elder brother. She was gentle, the sole ballerina in a family of footballers. She was eternally caring and would visit my school at lunchtimes, bringing tiny teddies and the unconditional love that was lacking from my schoolgirl friendships. She always saw the best in people, forever giving me the benefit of the doubt when I acted like a Lydia. I recall one day I skipped school, waiting at the train station for my family to empty our house. On my return home, I ran into my sister. She did not chastise me, or ask why I was there. She did not threaten to tell our parents. Neither did she celebrate my minor act of rebelliousness and offer to forge their signature on a note. Instead, she greeted me with a customary hug and invited me to university with her. I spent that day in her psychology lecture theatres, side by side with the one person who understood me.

My sister is still all of those things. She still has Jane’s quiet demeanour, her ability to offend nobody. She graduated university with first class honours and took her Advanced II ballet exam. When we get the chance to go swimming together, she still brings tiny teddies. And yet it is not the Jane Bennet side of her character that clings to my mind when I think of her. Instead, I am inspired by her youthfulness and spirit. She has all seven stuffed toy dwarves from Snow White lined up on her windowsill and can quote every line from Aladdin. We drive to the local swimming pool with Under the Sea in the CD player and her voice singing backup. She loves roller coasters and Cadbury chocolate and thinks there should be no limit to either. She calls our cat “kitty” and sleeps with her arm around the same doll she had as a child. I, who was so determined to grow up ahead of my time, admire her refusal to.

We live apart now, adults with different lives. I did the traditional thing: married at twenty-one and moved to the country, a salute, perhaps, to the Austensian era or the Emma for which I am named. She rents with two friends in the city. She is a full-time dancer, working as a waitress in the evenings to pay the bills. She still calls me “Smee” and writes me a letter daily, a consolation for our inability to see each other as often as we’d both like. My sister’s letters are filled with the music of her character; they make me laugh and mourn simultaneously.

Cassandra and Jane Austen wrote each other, it is estimated, up to three thousand letters. One would go on visits without the other, usually to one of their brothers, and they would write daily. Austen’s letters to Cassandra form the basis of much of what is known about her life. Sections are quoted in biographies, alongside the regretful comment that Cassandra had burned all but one hundred and sixty.

I cannot help but wonder why Cassandra would destroy those letters. Were they too painful to re-read, after losing her closest friend? Were they too personal to share with anybody else, should Cassandra die unexpectedly? Was it simply that nobody else could understand the words within, nobody else could do Jane justice? My sister’s letters contain words and phrases that make my chest ache with laughter, but my husband is merely confused by them. To explain in detail those references and memories is to erase a portion of their magic. Perhaps, for Cassandra, it was a choice: have the letters destroyed by fire, or have them destroyed by someone else’s feeble attempt to understand.

I must confess I am not as vigilant as my sister at letter-writing. I set her the challenge but failed to rise to it myself. We try to make up for it when I visit; I spend more time with her than with my husband. There are days when we speak only in questions, days when we speak in the Yorkshire accents of a mostly-forgotten youth, days when we skip everywhere instead of walking. She is two and a half years my senior, but my sister keeps me young.

One of Austen’s earliest writings, published in Juvenilia, was entitled The Beautifull Cassandra [sic] and dedicated to her sister. The dedication itself is more than enough evidence of the sisters’ devotion to each other:

Madam

You are a Phoenix. Your taste is refined, your Sentiments are noble, and your Virtues innumerable. Your Person is lovely, your Figure, elegant, and your Form, magestic. Your Manners are polished, your Conversation is rational and your appearance singular. If therefore the following Tale will afford one moment’s amusement to you, every wish will be gratified of

Your most obedient

humble servant

The Author

The adulation in those short words is overwhelming, and perhaps a little amusing. Personally, I could not write such a piece for my sister (unless it was a joke). It is not that we are incapable of genuine flattery rather that our goal in life is to make each other laugh as much as possible. The achievements that we celebrate in each other go far beyond “virtues” and “manners”, even beyond high distinctions at university – although we do compete academically, too. For us, there is value in the silly things. “I listened to the same song on repeat for twenty-four hours, including in the shower and when I was asleep” deserves a high-five. “I get to play Geppetto in the kids’ end-of-year dance concert” leads to an impromptu sing-along of Pinocchio and every other Disney movie soundtrack we can find. “I gave up chocolate for a whole month” warrants some kind of hero worship, followed by a trip to Max Brenner’s chocolate café.

Jane Austen’s love for Cassandra was matched only by Cassandra’s to her – of her sister’s death, Cassandra said:

I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself

I cannot imagine Cassandra’s pain. There could be no comfort, no replacement for such a loss. Cassandra, unfortunately, was destined to live on 28 years beyond her sister. I don’t doubt that for her, this was the worst kind of punishment. As Winnie the Pooh said to Christopher Robin, “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so that I never have to live without you.” My sister and I used to repeat that to one another all the time, its truth hiding behind the cuteness of such a sentiment.

My sister plans to audition for a role at Disneyland Tokyo soon, her dream job. She could play Jasmine, our favourite Disney Princess. Or Sleeping Beauty, the one we always joked was “her” role because she slept all the time. Regardless, to me she will still be Ariel, part of another world. The thought that she might be dancing in Japan for the remainder of her twenties excites and inspires me, but it also leaves me feeling a little lost. Still, I am certain that the ocean will not separate us any more than space between our childhood beds. In year eleven, I confessed to my English teacher that I had not read Pride and Prejudice, and my eyes were opened to Austen’s perception of sisterhood. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, Jane and Cassandra Austen remind me that what we have is not unique – but it is perfect.

A mini-musing about apologetics and faith

“It would be easier if You were just a thought in my head, simply something that I once read, a belief needing my defence.” – Tenth Avenue North

 

I love apologetics. I love expanding my knowledge and challenging my beliefs, finding answers and reassuring myself that I do not have “blind faith” (aka wilful ignorance), but faith that faces questioning head on. I love delving in to science, history and philosophy to find both the challenges and the answers. The trouble is, for every former-atheist who has had come to Christ through apologetics, there’s a former-Christian who has fallen away through doubt. If Richard Dawkins were to sit in a room with Josh McDowell for 3 days straight, I doubt either of them would have changed their mind at the end of it. Because faith is not an abstract concept. It’s not merely the absence of doubt. Faith is not an historical phenomenon, a social construct or an outdated scientific method of explaining things. Faith is not a series of answers to life’s big questions.

If I could ask Richard Dawkins just one question, it wouldn’t be about science. It wouldn’t even be about God. It would be this: “if you could convince just one person in the world, just one, to believe what you do, who would it be?” I want to know what his approach is to relationships, to community and to society. I want to know which kinds of people motivate him to try to change their views: is it someone he loves most, someone with the most influence, someone who hurt him (or others) badly in the name of religion? I don’t want to know about his theories or his evidence, I want to know about him.

You can say all you like about which parts of my husband’s brain fire up when he’s kissing me, what hormones are released into his bloodstream, the etymology of the phrase “I love you” and the social context that leads to marriages. Understanding the nitty gritty of a relationship doesn’t make it less beautiful – but nor does it somehow ‘prove’ the existence of that relationship to someone who isn’t living it. If anything, it might make them more cynical towards love and relationships as a whole.

Now this is not to diminish the importance of the field of apologetics. For me, I needed to tackle the doubts I had about God before I would be open to the story of Jesus. A few well-chosen books of apologetics helped me to get through those barriers and sent me on my way. But they weren’t what changed me or what made me “Christian”. I needed to understand what marriage was before I could enter in to the contract, but that understanding wasn’t what made me “married”.  My husband did that.

I appreciate knowing more about how the world works, how it came to exist as it does now, what influenced Hebrew laws and what psychological and chemical factors contribute to a person’s desire to be part of a religion. But those things don’t prove or disprove God.  Because faith is not a theory; it’s an experience. Faith is lived.

Is “pro-life feminist” an oxymoron?

I know this article is over a year old now, but the issue is still current and I wasn’t blogging when it was written. Anne Summers writes that it is not possible to be a pro-life feminist.

Now, I should preface all of this by saying that technically, I’m pro-choice. That is, from a political standpoint I believe that it is important that abortions be legally accessible, safe and affordable. Yet I am also about as pro-life sympathetic as a pro-choicer can get.  For me the compelling factor is that there are certain circumstances where I think a termination is warranted – if pregnancy and childbirth threatens the life of the mother or baby, for example, or if she is taking medication that cannot be taken while pregnant. So then we have to start adding caveats and loopholes. Doctors have differing opinions. We get into questions of rape. Of whether threatening the life of the mother includes a mother with severe ante-natal depression contemplating suicide. Whether threatening the life of the baby depends on its ability to survive without medical treatment, or its ability to survive with decades of intervention. Questions of which non-pregnancy-friendly medications are necessary and which aren’t. As someone who has never experienced those situations, who has not cried out to God for guidance about how to proceed and agonised about it night after night, I don’t believe that I am the right person to start making hard and fast rules about all of those possible circumstances. I don’t believe that a politician is the right person either. So I think that we have to trust women, and while morally I don’t necessarily agree with every circumstance in which a termination occurs, I do think that it needs to be the woman’s right to make her own moral decisions. She is, after all, the one who will be living with the consequences of her decision.

So, I’m pro-choice. However. I do believe that a foetus is a person. I do have sympathy for others who have reached different conclusions through different reasoning. I count myself a feminist, and even as a feminist I don’t have a significant issue with those who feel strongly about giving the unborn a chance to be born. What I do have a problem with is the pro-life movement.

The pro-life movement grows out of a very politically conservative, strongly religious branch of society. In America they’re known as the “Christian right” but believe me, they exist in other countries too. This is the same branch that wants to cut welfare programs, teach abstinence-only in schools, limit the freedoms of religions beside Christianity and reinforce “traditional gender roles”. Often, they’re also against contraceptives such as the birth control pill. These are the kinds of people who reduce the issue of abortion to “Most of them are killed simply because their birth causes someone inconvenience”* as if a shattering lifelong change to your future can be described as an “inconvenience”.  The result of this, of course, is that the pro-life movement is associated with things loosely termed “slut shaming”, whereby unwanted pregnancies are generally seen as the woman’s fault for being promiscuous. Hence, the enormous personal cost and social stigma of single parenthood is just a consequence of having sex outside of marriage.

I have seen many a pro-lifer struggle to disassociate themselves from that movement. There are plenty of more moderate Christians out there with a strong moral opposition to abortion, which they recognise as a complex issue. There are plenty of people of different religions, or no religion at all, who take a pro-life position without wanting to punish women.

This is what I think a pro-life feminist could look like:  She (or he) campaigns for free antenatal and postnatal care, including mental health care. She wants better support for single mothers, so that it doesn’t look like their life will be over. She wants more childcare places for women who want to finish study or need to work. She wants more accountability for fathers in terms of both financial concerns and custody – she thinks every other weekend doesn’t cut it when he was 50% responsible for the conception. She wants adoption to be a more viable option, including free or affordable counselling for all involved. She wants good, affordable, reliable and easily available contraceptives that are well-promoted and no stigma to use, to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place. She wants sex education in schools. She wants children to grow up knowing that all kinds of family structures are valid and “normal”. In short, she wants abortion to be as unnecessary as it possibly can be.

These things are often associated with those who are pro-choice, because they are politically left-wing. But that doesn’t mean that such policies are in themselves pro-choice. The same policies can grow out of two different motivations (dissuading a woman from making a certain choice vs supporting them after the fact) and be held by people with two different ultimatums (if all this fails, termination is still an option vs this serves to soften the blow of making abortion illegal).

But according to Anne Summers, such a woman would not be a real feminist. She defines feminism in this way:

“Feminism might be blandly defined as the support for women’s political, economic and social equality, and a feminist as someone who advocates such equality, but these general principles need practical elaboration and application. What does economic equality actually mean? How can women in practice achieve social equality? As far as I am concerned, feminism boils down to one fundamental principle and that is women’s ability to be independent.

There are two fundamental preconditions to such independence: ability to support oneself financially and the right to control one’s fertility. To achieve the first, women need the education and training to be able to undertake work that pays well. To guarantee the second, women need safe and effective contraception and the back-up of safe and affordable abortion.”

I disagree with this definition. First, how did we get from equality to independence? Are all men always independent (or, as she goes on to say, always given the choice to be independent or dependent)? Are they independent of the needs of others, the rights of others, or the law? Someone who is pro-life takes the view that a woman is no more independent of her baby’s rights than a man is of his wife’s rights when he beats her. Equality and independence are not the same thing. Equality is about fairness, justice, each person being treated as just as valuable as the next. Where pro-lifers and pro-choicers differ is whether an unborn, not-completely-developed foetus unable to express coherent thought should be given equality too.

Secondly, if we accept “the right to control one’s fertility [through contraception and abortion]” as a precursor for independence, we walk on shaky ground when it comes to men’s fertility. A man has equal right to contraception, but he does not have equal right to the “back-up”. He can’t force an abortion on his partner, nor should he ever be able to. He loses the final measure to control his fertility when it impedes on another person’s right to bodily autonomy. Hence, according to Summers, he does not have the ability to be independent. Obviously, I have a lot more sympathy for the pregnant woman losing her independence to the government, than I do for the man losing his independence to the woman who will carry and birth the child and be equally (or considerably more) responsible for its upbringing. Nonetheless, if abortion is necessary for independence then it’s not only women who are failing to achieve independence.

Finally, I reject the notion that the ability to support oneself financially and the ability to control one’s fertility are the essence of feminism which had been prior defined as “support for women’s political, economic and social equality”. Political equality, for example, includes the right to vote, yet suffrage does not affect my ability to support myself financially or control my fertility (unless too many people vote coalition and Abbott becomes our PM…).

If someone is passionate about equal pay, having the right to apply for certain kinds of jobs or fight in combat positions, resisting sexual harassment, removing the victim-blaming crap that comes with rape culture etc, then they might identify with feminism, despite having a different perspective on the pro-life/pro-choice debate. I kind of see it like being a Labor party member while simultaneously opposing the Carbon tax. You haven’t taken the party line on that issue, but does that mean you can no longer identify yourself with a party that holds to many, many of your other political beliefs?

I think it is possible to be a pro-life feminist. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.

*Quoted from a comment made by Admin on the “policies” webpage of the Rise Up Australia Party.

Things I Should Have Said

I’m gutless. There, I put it out there. I’m a people-pleaser and I bite my tongue more than I should. Even now, I’m hiding behind a keyboard to say this way too late. But I’m telling you this because I don’t want to be gutless anymore, and I don’t want you to be gutless either. The world was never changed by people too afraid to try to change it.

I should be clear on what I’m talking about. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m gradually becoming that little bit more vocal about my faith, or if it’s because I’m spending time with different people, but I’m finding myself erroneously viewed as someone who might agree with racist, sexist or homophobic comments. There seems to be a perception that Christian = bigot. Or maybe it’s just straight, white, privileged person in a traditional marriage = bigot. And this perception isn’t coming from those who look down on me for my faith or lifestyle choices, quite the opposite. It’s coming from other straight, white, privileged people who want me to nod along when they feel like being offensive.

A woman at church recently implored me to travel in to the nation’s capital to attend our National Day of Prayer. She said that it was a big event, busloads of people go – “and they’ve all got slanty eyes or accents, but there are very few representatives of us white Australians”.

Here’s what I should have said:

“I realise you probably weren’t intentionally being racist, but I find that offensive. I object to the notion that I should attend a prayer day, not because I am Christian, but because I am a white Christian. God hears the prayers of those with a different ethnic background just as loud and with the same heart. I would be honoured to pray along with them.”

But I didn’t.

When critiquing a parenting “expert” with a different woman at church, she told me that if I was struggling with decisions about discipline and the like, I could talk to her about it because “I’ve got 5 God-loving children and I never dumped them in childcare or anything like that, we raised them all full-time”.

Here’s what I should have said:

“Thank you for the offer, but I do just want to flag that comment about childcare. I’m a stay at home mum to my son because I want to be and because I was blessed to be able to afford to be, not because I think there is anything inherently wrong about childcare. I would be just as inclined to turn towards a working mum for advice about parenting.”

But I didn’t.

Worst of all, a member of my own extended family has over several separate occasions made comments including a similar remark about childcare, objecting to my son having a toy doll, the use of slurs such as “chink” and “poofter”, and telling me that I needed to have more children to do my bit to populate the country with more white Australians. The best response I could muster to any of this to express my outrage was “Stop. Do not say that in front of me, in my car.”

Here’s what I should have said:

“I do not believe that I, a ‘white’ immigrant, have any more right to this country than the dozens of 2nd generation Asian-Australian women I went to school with who are intelligent and hard-working contributors to society. I find that word offensive. If you want my son to grow up respecting you at all, I’d suggest you keep those sorts of opinions to yourself, because I will be teaching him that it is wrong to value someone differently due to their race or sexuality. Your words are hurtful. Not just to me, but to your Muslim brother in law, your Asian 2nd-cousin and the lesbian family friend we had Christmas lunch with a couple of years ago. They can’t hear you speak them, but they are still hurt by them, every time you perpetuate the myth that I should look down on them. I don’t want to listen to this any more, but more importantly, I don’t want anyone to have to listen to this any more.”

But I didn’t.

Because I’m gutless.

I need to stop being gutless. I need to tell people when they’re speaking words of hate and intolerance. I need to set a better example to my son, because I don’t want him to stand by and watch when someone is being bullied, or worse. I don’t want to be a secret feminist or a secret egalitarian any more than I want to be a secret Christian.

If you’re gutless too, I am not writing this to make you feel guilty. I am writing this so that you understand that you’re not alone and you’re not a horrible person. But there is an opportunity to change. Change with me. Let’s find some guts.

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