Monica Bellucci, older women, sexuality and the media

The sexuality of older people is frequently denigrated and neglected. This is particularly true for women. People of all genders are taught a dogma of youth=beauty and marketed a multitude of products to fend off the effects of time. But whilst men become “distinguished” with age, women are touted botox in a bid to keep their partners from trading them in. 54-year-old George Clooney is still considered a sex symbol, Hugh Hefner surrounds himself with bikini-clad bunny girls and it’s not uncommon for women to talk lustily of “salt and pepper hair” and be-suited “silver foxes”. Where is our celebration of older women? Of grey hairs, lines around the eyes, ageing breast tissue and hot flushes? Women are encouraged to continue to remain looking youthful, or risk being deemed “ugly” and discarded. Meanwhile, men are taught to only see attractiveness in the young. Where does this leave us?

Ever see this gender-swapped?

Ever see this gender-swapped with an older woman?

Much has been made of the casting of Monica Bellucci in the latest Bond film, Spectre. The choice of the 51-year-old actress as a Bond Girl (or should that be, Bond Woman), a pedestal of sexual attractiveness, has been lauded as “ground-breaking” and a “triumph” for feminism. Should it really shock us that Bond (played by Daniel Craig, aged 47) has finally been cast alongside a woman of his own age? We think little of him being paired with women in their 20s and 30s, as is common for the franchise. Bellucci, who can hardly be described as“old”, holds all of the assets commonly associated with “beauty”. She is famed for looking younger than her years and an ex-model, so perhaps her casting will not give great comfort to other middle-aged women. The film makes a small step for representation, but the furore around the issue reminds us of how few examples we have of older women portrayed as “sexy” in film.

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Daniel Craig (47), with “older” Bellucci (51) and Seydoux (30)

Narrow and negative views of women’s sexuality are punishing at any age. Younger women struggle with Madonna/Whore attitudes, which both encourage them to be “sexy” and then shame them for it. As women age, they quickly become stereotyped as “desperate” and predatory “cougars” if they choose to be visibly sexual or become entirely invisible. Although some women may prefer younger men, fantasies of the sexually experienced “older women” (a la The Graduate) aren’t helpful if they’re the only image of sexuality in older women we see. In a depressing excerpt in porn documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” a 25 year old performer describes progressing quickly from being cast as a “teen” to a “MILF”. These fantasies aren’t only damaging to women, who should be given opportunities to explore and express their sexuality as they age as more than a vehicle for a younger man’s naughty adventures. Women who sexually abuse young people are frequently given lesser sentences than their male equivalents and attitudes that boys would be “lucky” to receive such attention abound. Women don’t sexually deactivate at the age of 35, with some women describing feeling more sexual at this age than when they were younger. But all too often this part of women’s lives is silenced and we see little of it represented in the world around us.

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Six Feet Under’s Ruth, a great image of a sexually active older woman

Ideas about age and attractiveness are multi-faceted and can’t be entirely blamed on the media. However, greater representation of older women (and not just middle-aged) as attractive and viable sexual partners rather than the butt of jokes or pornographic fantasies can go some way to expand our narrow terms of reference. One particularly good example I’m reminded of is the character Ruth Fisher in HBO’s Six Feet Under. The character is widowed at the start of the series and begins to explore her sexuality, taking a number of lovers. Although there are jokes to her storyline, Ruth’s love life isn’t a humorous sideline and is treated seriously. Ruth’s adult children struggle with her newfound life, but her sexuality is shown in an honest and unedited manner. In one shot, she is shown naked, grey hair falling on her shoulders, lying in bed with her partner, also an older man. How often do we see images like this? Or are we encouraged to see them as somehow “disgusting” or ridiculous?

Recent years have shown an increase in films with older characters, reportedly vying for the “grey-pound”. We need to have accurate representations of people of all ages in the media, not just so that people can identify with characters like themselves, but for the ways in which it challenges and teaches us to think critically about our stereotypes about age. Monica Bellucci is a great addition to the Bond films but let’s not laud her as a game-changer for women in film. We need more representation of older women (not just those with model looks), as beautiful, sexy and sexual. They need not always be centre-stage, but included alongside other plots and characters, for a drip-by-drip education that can encourage us to see activeness in all ages. Images like these could serve to remind women that they don’t have a “best before” date and their sexuality, at any age, is something to celebrate.

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Writing and things (less serious edition)

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Lately I’ve been making some more time to write and am finding some new publications and organisations to get involved with. As I’ve moved to having this blog more focused on psychology, sexuality & health I wanted to find some spaces to write about other less serious or just different subjects. Most recently I’ve started contributing to the blog for magazine Things & Ink.

T&I began as a publication celebrating female tattoo culture. They’ve recently increased their remit to all independent tattooing but maintain a feminist slant. To the uninitiated, sexism in the world of tattoos might not seem obvious. Photographing ink naturally requires the display of skin, but all too often women are only featured in magazines as ‘tattooed pin-ups’, in sexualised poses and revealing outfits. Meanwhile male artists and collectors are pictured very differently. There obviously isn’t anything wrong with a tattooed woman enjoying her sexuality and flaunting her body, but it’s problematic if these are the only images of inked women we see. Female tattoos still tend to be culturally linked to promiscuity and a lack of ‘class’ (think of the narrative around ‘tramp stamps’). Visibly tattooed women frequently experience sexual harassment in the street, including uninvited touching of their skin (I could go on but actually I plan on writing something more in depth about this!). I love the magazine as it’s so different and also beautifully out together, with such a range of articles, so it’s great to have the opportunity to be involved. So far I’ve written two pieces, one on white ink tattoos and one on cultural appropriation.

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Another little project I have is a beauty blog focused on pale skin and suncare. I can be a bit of a nerd when it comes to suncream and I’d never been able to find much in terms of blogs and reviews for similarly sun-intolerant people. It’s just a bit of fun and in the works. I’m reviewing higher end suncreams and make-up with SPF in, and plan to do more features related to pale skincare.

Trans Visiblity: Rallying, allying and minding your own business

NB – I am open to suggestions and making edits to this piece if anyone feels the language used is inappropriate or inaccurate. Please drop me a message and let me know556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vf

Here is an extract from a recent conversation I had:

“But the first Matrix is definitely the best Wachowski Brothers’ film”

“They’re actually not called the Wachowski Brothers anymore, as one of them has since transitioned”

“Ah okay, didn’t know that! Good pub quiz knowledge!”

And then the conversation moved on. Transgender people are arguably more visible now than ever before, and words and phrases such as “transition”, “non-binary”, “female-to-male” and “gender identity” are far more commonplace in general vocabulary and seem to not need the level of explanation that they once did. That isn’t to say that it’s fully entrenched in common knowledge, and many people still don’t know the difference between terms such as “transgender”, “transvestite” and “hermaphrodite” (and think “cis” is some kind of infection), (the BBC published a helpful glossary this week). Awareness is rising, and that’s never been more true than this week, with Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, quickly becoming the most visible trans person in the world.

Transvisibility has certainly increased in the last couple of years. Openly trans actress and activist Laverne Cox rose to prominence in Orange is the New Black, later gracing the cover of Time magazine and posing nude for Allure. Trans models such as Lea T and Andeja Pejic have been very visible in fashion and beauty campaigns. Popular television shows such as Transparent and Louis Theroux’s “Transgender Kids” have been educational to audiences. Journalist and presenter Paris Lees, once voted top of the “pink list” of influential UK LGBT people, has brought a lot of attention to trans issues. Trans men continue to be less visible, although statistics suggest that they are similar in number.

Prior to this week I was only vaguely aware of Ms Jenner (I’ve never watched her reality shows) but lately my social media has been awash with images of her, celebrating her bravery, openness and the inspiration she gives. But you only need to read the comments posted on this article (or indeed from some celebrities) to see how far we have to go in terms to increasing awareness, acceptance and equality for the transgender and minority gender identity community.

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Trans people experience significant discrimination and abuse. Many trans people, particularly women of colour, are murdered each year. They are rejected by their families, bullyied and the list of those who turn to suicide increases. The stories of Leelah Alcorn and Lucy Meadows are two recent tragic examples that have been publicised. Trans rights were largely ignored in the equal marriage debates, and the issue of “spousal veto” remains – in which a married person applying for a gender recognition certificate must have the approval of their spouse. The UK’s most prominent gay rights charity Stonewall has only recently begun to represent trans people, after lengthy lobbying. Transphobia is pervasive and often slips under the radar, as though seem as a fair topic for fun rather than an undercurrent of prejudice that impacts on the lives of trans people continually. Trans people are often the subject of jokes in the media and derogatory terms such as “tr*nny” are used without thought. If you look out for it you might be surprised the level of offensive language commonly used that refers negatively to trans communities, often slipping in subtly. Trans people are overrepresented in mental health populations, and with a lifetime of discrimination and high incidences of trauma it’s little wonder why. In order to access gender identity services people must jump through considerable hoops that include extensive psychiatric evaluation. The past hashtag #transdocfail exhibited just how uninformed health professionals are about trans issues. Any one of these instances is shocking, but together it’s a pretty horrifying picture of how we treat human beings we see as “different”.

TDFSamples

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Stroke, sexuality, sexism…back on track!

Harmless fun? If my meal's going to be unnecessarily gendered I hope it comes with pink icing and glitter

Harmless fun? If my meal’s going to be unnecessarily gendered I hope it comes with pink icing and glitter

After a long hiatus I’ve finally got time to get back to this blog. I can see that my last entry was Halloween 2013 – which was about 6 months before my thesis hand-in (so you can imagine how the time following this was spent). I’ve now completed my studies, qualified and am working as a clinical psychologist in a brain injury service. Getting up to speed on my new job (not to mention actually having to go to work 5 days a week, without a study day in sight!) has left me pretty shattered but I’m slowly adjusting to my new routine. A quick update on my recent movements:

  • I recently submitted my thesis (which was about sexual issues post-stroke and how rehab professionals work with these) for publication and I also presented it as part of a talk on sexuality and acquired brain injury that I did at the last SHADA (Sexual Health and Disability Alliance) meeting. I think I’ve now exhausted the potential to spread this piece of research (until it’s finally published), I’m ready to move onto studying something a little different now and also getting back to writing.
  • Following the submission I finally got round to writing something for my university blog, “Discursive of Tunbridge Wells”, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Salomons runs their own blog as part of their public engagement drive, it covers a whole range of issues related to applied psychology – debates within mental health, professional roles, lived experiences. It has some great content from a really wide range of contributors and I’m quite proud that my old department is putting something like this out there – I think it’s the only clinical psychology course to do so. My piece is about supporting people with cognitive impairments (e.g. brain injury, LD) to vote and how mental capacity relates to this (or doesn’t). It’s something I’d come across in my work recently and I definitely feel it needs more awareness! I’m hoping to do more writing relating to health and disability issues in forums such as this.
  • A couple of days ago I received a request from a journalist. I was initially quite excited as I thought maybe they’d picked up my voting piece (it is topical after all…). But alas no, they were running a piece on something on twitter I’d responded to the other day. The “story” relates to a picture of a cafe menu in Bristol that has “for him” and “for her” breakfasts. The masculine meal is a greasy Full English whilst ladies get a lighter option with salad leaves and blueberries. Whilst I don’t think a gendered breakfast is the biggest threat to feminism, this kind of lazy stereotyping annoys me, especially the underlying idea that women should have the diet-friendly dish. The story was originally published in the Bristol Post, but was then picked up by several other media sources (including the Daily Mail) which pretty much recycled the entire article and quotes “Outrage at Sexist Menu!!”. The article has of course attracted many entertaining commenters who see us as miserable feminazis with nothing better to do than get offended. I’m amused that this has generated far far more interest than any of my research or any of the many articles I’ve written over the years!  I feel sorry for the cafe who admittedly acted thoughtlessly but didn’t really deserve the level of attention this piece of non-news has achieved.
No need to actually go on the Daily Mail website, here's the bit that mentions me as if I have some kind of special knowledge on these matters.

No need to actually go on the Daily Mail website, here’s the bit that mentions me as if I have some kind of special knowledge on these matters.

So I’m hoping to do much more writing, presenting and generally getting out into the world in the coming year. If anyone needs a comment or piece written on any of my usual topics (brain injury and rehabilitation, neuropsychology, sex and disability, ableism and “invisible disabilities”, sexual and gender minority issues and related things) do let me know! Or I can comment on minor acts of unintentional sexism, I’m versatile.

Halloween and representations of mental health

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‘Mental Patient’ costume. This is clearly inspired by Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter. Does that make it ok? And who is to blame for the offense? The author of the book? The director of the film? Or the costume maker?

As Halloween looms closer, I’ve noticed a considerable number of stories appearing in my time-line about ‘scary mental illness’ being used in Halloween media. The best known examples being the campaign for Asda and Tesco to take down ‘mental patient’ costumes, and the current debate over Thorpe Park’s ‘Asylum‘.

Mental health service users  have been debating these issues online with strong opinions on both sides. On the anti-campaign are claims that these images of people with mental health problems as frightening are deeply stigmatising and build into the damaging discrimination that people experience. Mental health charity Mind encouraged followers to tweet pictures of themselves to who what a real ‘mental patient’ outfit would look like.

On the other side have been voices (including those of people who have experience of mental health problems) saying that these costumes and attractions are clearly based on horror movie imagery rather than real mental illness and that the campaign has drawn further attention to the attractions and made people with mental health problems appear obsessive and joyless.

I haven’t fully formed an opinion on either side. The costumes are indeed insensitive, though they wouldn’t be the only ones out there. Though I don’t necessarily support it, fancy dress is often very un-PC. Cultural appropriation is rife (think red indian and geisha costumes), as is sexism. When it comes to Halloween, I wonder how pagans/wiccans and people with facial disfigurements feel about the other ‘scary’ costumes out on sale? Everyone has the right to be offended and express their view, but if we take down these ‘patient’ costumes, we should probably do away with many of the others also.

The idea of someone with mental health problems as scary wasn’t invented by costume makers. We have a long history of characters in horror films who are portrayed as suffering for mental illness, often shown as the ‘motive’ for their behaviour. The ‘psycho-killer’ is a common stereotype. These films are very popular and the incredibly negative portrayal of mental illness has seemingly gone unchallenged. Often these ‘mental patient’ costumes seem to be based on characters like Silence of the Lambs‘ Hannibal Lecter.

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Mental illness and horror – a popular combination?

An abandoned asylum is often a horror movie setting (think House on Haunted Hill). Asylums have an awful history, and rightfully so. The patients who lived in these asylums were subjected to awful treatment, and there’s a reason why these places were shut down. Some horror films have used this history, portraying cruel doctors and the kinds of horrific ‘treatment’ that was given out. Unfortunately some have preferred to focus on the patients themselves, and characterised them as frightening characters. Mental health problems can cause someone to act in a way that others might find hard to understand and frightening, but these media characterisations of scary patients surely does nothing to encourage understanding.

In one of Thorpe Park’s responses to the campaign they commented that the ‘Asylum’ attraction has been running for 8 years without complaint, and has been popularly attended. Why is it that uproar is only gathering now? Similarly, the ‘mental patient’ costumes are not new this year. It may be that mental health campaigners feel more empowered to take a stand and take on companies profiting from these negative stereotypes. While I hope this is the case, I think we need to consider why we’ve let negative portrayals of mental illness go so unchallenged for so long. We’re appalled by the straight-jacketed costumes but still flock to the films that inspired them. These costumes are in bad taste and I wouldn’t like to belittle the hurt they’ve caused to an already stigmatised group, but I think amidst the uproar surrounding them we need to think about where these ideas originate and whether taking down the costumes and attractions will really get to the heart of the stereotypes and stigma around mental health problems.

Upcoming Wonder Season and the Brainwaves Weekender @ The Barbican

 

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Personally, I’m rather keen on brains and brain-related things. So it’ll probably come as no surprise that I’m rather excited about the Barbican’s upcoming Wonder Festival devoted to the mind, including a weekend (March 2nd-3rd)  focused on all things brainy. Ahead of the British Neuroscience Association’s festival at the Barbican in April, this season throughout March and April looks to explore the much intertwined relationship between neuroscience and the arts, through a series of talks, workshops, film showings, comedy, theatre and music events. It’s a collaboration with the Wellcome Trust, who were also behind that rather brilliant Brains exhibition last year.

Amongst the events on over the season are a few crafty sessions to help people get creative as they get to grips with a bit of neuroanatomy, including sessions where you can knit a neuron and dissect a jelly brain. I’m not sure if these events are more aimed at kids,  but they sound right up my street. Ruby Wax is doing a talk on her experiences of depression, there are showing suitably mind-related films (including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind), amongst many other things. Another rather trusting looking event is ‘The Salon Project‘, an interactive theatrical experience where “You will be costumed in full period evening dress before emerging into a mirrored impression of a 19th-century Parisian salon. As you mingle with guests, pioneers in their fields will provoke discussion, speaking on subjects at the vanguard of 21st-century thought: science, politics, technology and the arts.” Which sounds wonderfully bizarre. I love this entire theme, involving science and art in a way that can get people to think (ha) about the brain and how they interact with their world, in new and creative ways.Watch this space for a report after I’ve been!


The Death of MSN Messenger (and the rise of pseudo-communication)

As someone who was a child in the 90s, I was part of a generation of early-adopters of the internet. I still remember well spending hours downloading a single album-track off Napster, being yelled at by my parents to get off the computer so that they could use the phone, and the ever-distinguishable cadent chime of the dial-up.

And there was MSN messenger (or just ‘MSN’, as we referred to it), the online instant-messenging service we were all hooked on. I remember spending many hours spent after school in impossible-to-follow group conversations (sometimes with 8+ members), gossiping and chattering. Picking out them the most appropriate morbid lyric to use as my screen-name and a high-contrast black and white photo of my face for an avatar. The next day much real-life conversation was devoted to the previous night’s MSN adventures.

As a shy teenager who often remained quiet in social gatherings, MSN gave me an opportunity to talk to others in a way I often didn’t have the chance to. I felt pretty proud of my long list of contacts (many of whom were people I’d never actually met).Online messaging certainly added an ease to staying in touch with further-away contacts and making plans, but the new technology also seemed to facilitate a particular kind of nastiness in people. Unknown before, it was now very possible to have a dramatic ‘fight’ online, and I remember groups of friends gathering around a computer, pretending to be someone else to get some personal and embarrassing information out of others.

Some things are admittedly easier to type than they are to say out loud. Embarrassing now, but I remember keeping an MSN transcript in which my then-boyfriend had come very close to saying he loved me. I cherished it, re-reading it frequently. However, this medium also lent an ease to saying the kind of things that social acceptability might prevent you from uttering IRL. Though I guess it has always been possible to send your thoughts to someone in a letter and every medium may be subject to abuse in the wrong hands, MSN meant it was possible to insult and reject someone, from a distance with veritable ease.

I remained an MSN-user into my university years. I no-longer had the lengthy group chats laced with moving GIFs and exclamation marks, but I still used it on a daily basis to chat to others. I frequently felt frustrated that these interactions, with their stilted structure and invented spellings, seemed to be replacing my real-life conversations. Whilst the IMs provided some contact with others, it just wasn’t satisfying. The final straw came when a rather cowardly ex-partner decided to use the medium to end our relationship. I felt humiliated that he hadn’t even felt I was worth telephoning and felt appalled at how easily and callously he could instigate the break-up. At that point I decided I was done with MSN. If I didn’t have a continual presence on these platforms, others would be forced to have conversations with me in real life. I was sick of people hiding behind their computers and delivering words they wouldn’t dare to say to my face. Uninstall.

I have been MSN-abstinent for over 4 years now, and I don’t miss it. When I saw that this March, Microsoft plans to close the platform for good, it made me wonder if others have shared my frustrations with instant messaging. I have Facebook and Skype and will use the IM-services on these, but like to keep them to a minimum. , I appreciate that my irritations lie more with the way others choose to use messenger services, rather than the service itself, and It’s quite possible that younger generations use these programs much in the way that mine used MSN. Others before me have lamented how, in an age where communication so is easily facilitated by the internet, we lose something of the depth and intimacy that a telephone call, hand-written letter or long face-to-face chat bestow. I think when it becomes so easy to ‘keep in touch’ with someone by posting on their wall, dropping them a chat message etc, you can build up a false sense of maintaining a relationship, when in reality it wilts in the absence of more genuine contact.

MSN gave me, and millions of other awkward teenagers, a platform to speak and reach out to others, and it shaped the relationships we formed with each other (though not always for the better). Undoubtedly there will be some who will mourn it’s loss, but there are still many methods (online and otherwise) to keep in touch. Newer programs such as Skype enable families spread across the globe to maintain more regular contact, so it could be argued that it is significantly adding to and improving relationships. Personally think online communication does have the capacity to be personal and meaningful, when it’s used thoughtfully and with due time and consideration, rather than in a lazier manner.