Friday, 15 May 2015

The Falling and Girlhood: Finally, some real teenage girls in the cinema

At the Women of The World festival in March, Caitlin Moran (when she wasn’t making the sign language interpreters translate rude words), pointed out how rare it is to see normal girls on screen just being normal.  

It’s bloody marvellous to see Katniss Everdeen saving the world, but most teenage girls aren’t discovering hitherto unknown archery skills, displaying unfathomable courage and making incendiary speeches.  Mostly they’re pissing about at the back of a classroom, or the back of a bus or the back of a playing field.  They're writing notes to each other in sparkly gel pens, discovering that bras will never be comfortable and generally trying to work out how to possibly handle the world around them.

It’s essential for girls to have role models and strong female characters to look up to, but it’s also so crucial that they can see themselves reflected in art and culture, and not only within the YA genre.

There are two films in cinemas at the moment which are giving some much-needed screen time to teenage female characters that exist very much within the realm of possibility.  The Falling and Girlhood show the experience of being a teenage girl in ways we so rarely see. 

In Girlhood, a scene of the four central characters lip-syncing to Rihanna’s Diamonds in a hotel room is so full of joy.  The song fades out and you realise that they’re not lip-syncing at all; they’re singing along, at the top of their voices, and not particularly well.  This is not Pitch Perfect or Glee.  This is every girl’s bedroom I was in when I was fourteen.

There are scenes in these films that I can’t remember ever seeing before in the cinema.   I’ve never seen girls beating the crap out of each other like Girlhood portrays in full thumping detail.  When The Falling’s core group of friends deal with a tragedy by performing a solemn ritual, holding hands in a circle, it resonates.  They find some quiet, insular way to mark the event that feels true to them, however ridiculous it may appear to outsiders.

Any film about teenage girls would be failing all teenage girls if it shied away from portraying their teenage bodies.  Times are a-changing and they are simultaneously fascinated and horrified by their own and others' outgoing pubescence.  Girlhood opens with an all-girl American football game, bodies crashing into each other and hitting the ground.  Powerful limbs tackle stocky torsos.  

In The Falling, the mass fainting that takes over the school comes in the form of dance-like sequences as the girls sway dreamily and their knees buckle. The camera lingers over the silhouette of Abbie’s perfectly ski-sloped nose in The Falling while solemn Marieme in profile is a truly stunning shot in Girlhood.  Neither film is reluctant to show these girls learning to inhabit their physical forms but rather than sexualised, they are fascinating.  This is very much a female on female gaze.

Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams in Carol Morley's The Falling

The girls in both films are constantly touching each other:  hugging, kissing on cheeks, stroking hair, holding hands and snuggling into one another’s shoulders.  They’re obsessed with each other.  They descend into wonderfully honest fits of giggles and make heartfelt declarations of forever friendship.  They appropriate habits from each other, mirroring movements and hairstyles. They are so absolutely in that moment, making good and bad decisions, being kind and being cruel.  They are naughty, confused, brash, annoying, wistful, perceptive and stubborn.  They are real.

I've written before about the importance of seeing films with female leads on their opening weekends - to boost box office clout and convince the studios that these films are worth producing.  Here are films with almost entirely female casts, made by female directors and focusing on the stories of teenage girls, which are so often ignored.  These are the sorts of projects which are not easy to get off the ground.  But it gets a whole lot easier if there are ticket sales to back up audience demand. 

Thanks to the wonderful The Female Lead for the preview screening of Girlhood.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Poppy Smart, catcalling and pissing in the street

There has, this week, been a “VERY heated debate” (Daily Mail, 29th April 2015) around 23-year-old Poppy Smart reporting builders to both their employer and the police for repeated sexual harassment.  Of course there hasn't really.  There have been misguided opinion pieces written by women who claim that they enjoy the attention, comment pieces from men who frankly have no right to wade in at all, and opportunistic, wanking misogynists on Twitter seizing yet another moment to hurl abuse at a woman for speaking up, from behind the safety of their computer screens.

Thanks to projects like Everyday Sexism and the generally increasing prominence of female voices, it is now largely recognised that a social dynamic exists whereby women are subject to unsolicited sexual attention (also known as harassment) in public.  Even one of the pro-catcalling commentators in the Mail’s “VERY heated debate” piece agreed on this, although managed to somehow argue that the best thing for women is to just deal with it stating “a woman who can’t deal with a whistling man is not going to be able to deal with very much that this world is going to throw at her”.  Thanks Melissa Kite, that is just some real inspirational stuff.

A couple of weeks ago I was walking to the Overground station from my flat in Shadwell.  In six months of living there, I’ve been lucky enough not to be made to feel vulnerable on the streets there.  On this particular Saturday, I was (the irony!) heading to Shoreditch to take part in a new anti-rape campaign called This Doesn’t Mean Yes, and interview the founders of the project.  

As I walked down past the railway arches, it was pretty quiet.  There were some men unloading fruit and vegetables at the back of the market, a kid playing football and a family herding several children on tricycles and scooters.  I walked past them and then, between me and the station, there was just one man up ahead of me.  He was on the other side of the street but crossed over to the pavement I was walking on and stood very near the wall of some flats, facing inwards.  It was a strange move.  If he was desperate for a piss, there were many, many more private places to do it than here.  Men urinating in public is one of the basest forms of male assertion of power but that is not the debate I want to have here.

I was still a hundred feet away and nothing happened.  He just stood there and I put it down to some plain old oddball East London behaviour.  Then at the exact moment I reached him, was parallel with him, no more than a couple of feet away, he started to urinate.  I flinched, carried on walking and wondered whether the timing was pure coincidence.

I turned back once, looking over my shoulder and he was staring straight at me grinning.  It wasn't coincidence.  He had made a conscious decision to walk to somewhere where he would be closer to me and then to begin pissing at the exact moment I drew level with him.  He literally marked his territory, and as far as he was concerned, his territory was that pavement.  He owned it and I did not.

There is often a discussion around catcalling along the lines of wondering what men are hoping to achieve when they shout insults, make lewd requests and comment on a woman’s appearance in public.  Are they hoping that she will sleep with them?  Reward them in some way?  The answer is that there is no end goal here.  There is no thought process.  It is their unthinking, accepted, unconditional right to demonstrate their superior position as and when they choose.

So whether catcalling or wolf-whistling or "Morning love" - it is not “traditional mating fun” (Ray Connolly, Daily Mail).  It’s about who holds the power in a public space.  It’s not flattering, or a compliment or harmless flirting.  It’s nothing more than pissing in the street just because they can.

Find out more about #thisdoesntmeanyes at

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

"Classic" pieces should make you the most badass you there is

I’ve recently had something very special come into my life.  Something I never thought I would be mine.  Sure, I needed some parental help with it, and I’ve had to learn a lot about how to look after it.  Everything feels different now I have it, and I know I'll never let it go.  

Most importantly, heaven forbid a hot (or cold) beverage comes anywhere near it.

It’s not every jumper that you immediately forge a lifelong bond with but Bella Freud has me head over tiny heels.  I’ve never paid much attention when fashion journalists talk about “investment pieces”.  My hyperactive thirst for new and shiny things means I’ve been pretty content on the high street and too flighty to get excited by “classic” fashion.

But I’ve realised that classic doesn’t have to mean dull and nondescript. Classic is subjective.  It’s a piece of clothing or jewellery that exists outside of trends or seasons, but more importantly you are innately drawn to it.  This is a personal connection, not some cheap pang of lust.  You can’t stop thinking about it.  However secure your sense of self, it’s enhanced when you wear this.  Practically, it will go with almost everything you own.  Spiritually, it will make you feel more complete.

This jumper was a birthday present a while ago from my ludicrously generous parents and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that life will never be the same again.  I’m not saying that before I owned it I couldn’t bring down the patriarchy, I’m just saying it’s a lot more likely now.

A Bella Freud jumper is kind of a fashion lover’s classic.  It’s not a Burberry check or a Louis Vuitton logo which might be recognisable to people who don’t have any interest in fashion.  It’s more of a Missoni zig-zag knit or a Mary Katrantzou digital print.  When I get an appreciative glance or a knowing nod, I know it’s for real.   It’s secret code for “I know what you know and that is that your jumper has magical powers.  Nice one.  High Five.  Right on.”

But most people couldn’t give a toss what I’m wearing and I’m not expecting plaudits from all corners, or people hurriedly curtseying in the street as they see me coming.  The point is, in this jumper, I kind of feel like they are.  BOW DOWN PEASANTS, BELLA ‘S GOT MY BACK.*

*Possible empowerment overload

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Berlin City Guide: Kreuzberg and Neukölln

I don't tend to write travel posts because a distinct lack of funds rather limits my travelling opportunities and I have only so much imagination to turn Shadwell into Sienna.  But a happy coincidence of a press trip coinciding with the Easter break means I've spent a few days in the totally excellent city of Berlin.  After I finished being really convincingly professional and staying in a hotel which cost far beyond my means, I took myself off to explore the East side of the city and my nerdy research paid off.  Here are some of the bars, restaurants and cafes that I can genuinely recommend because I have physically been inside them and parted with cash.  Pretty much all of them are on a nondescript residential street but trust me, they do exist.


Five Elephantfind on map
This crops up on a lot of lists of top Berlin coffee shops and is well worth stopping by for a flat white and a slice of cheesecake - although don't leave it too late in the day because there were several disappointed faces once it had sold out.  I read my book and listening to them playing The Smiths while the sun shone through the window, and generally felt pretty content with the world.

Bohnengold, find on map
A smoky, candle-lit, bohemian joint with uber-cheap beers which feels very much like a bunch of rakeish poets should be hanging out there...and they quite possibly are.  Get lost in a warren of rooms, curl up by the fireplace and forget what time of day it is.  Bar snacks are highly recommended.

Voofind on map
It's a slight lie that I parted with any cash in Voo because, truthfully I would have had to return to London shorter one kidney to have afforded anything.  But it's a very cool shop with what I would call "directional" stock, lustworthy jewellery and general trendy knick-knacks.

Voo store Berlin
Voo: Aspirational luxury and Future Sailor shapes

Coffee Companion in Voofind on map
To console myself walking away from Voo empty-handed, I didn't actually walk too far.  
Conveniently inside the shop, they have a lovely mini-cafe where you can nurse a caffeine hit whilst making other shoppers feel uncomfortable by staring them down.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the conversation going on next to me about "this amazing band, The Cure, have you heard of them?"

coffee shops Berlin
If you can't afford to join them, creep them out by watching them.

Museum der Dingefind on map
The "Museum of Things" could equally be called the "Museum of Random Crap We Displayed While We Were Stoned" and still be an accurate representation of the contents.  Alongside seriously beautiful/interesting German design through the 20th century, you'll find mannequin heads, Nazi kitsch, Nokia 3210s and Polly Pockets.  Can't recommend highly enough for a trip through the weird and wonderful.

Museum of Things
On the basis of this, my bedroom is a museum.

Bar Ravalfind on map
This place is slightly more upmarket for an evening meal but the tapas is properly delicious, and the portions are decent.  Lovely location next to Görlitzer parkplenty of veggie options and a baked goat's cheese I'm still thinking about.


Fuchs und Elsterfind on map
It's quite hard to escape candlelight in Berlin so if you intend on wearing a vast amount of hairspray or particularly flammable clothing, perhaps avoid this spot.  On the other hand, if you want dinner or cocktails in a cosy atmosphere with incredibly generous glasses of wine and hip staff, you should be ok.

Roamersfind on map
This cafe is tiny, and I mean tiny. I squeezed onto the end of the bar before finding a table seat which was crucial because my short legs meant the bar stool was not working out so well for me.  I loved it though, not least, because they made me fresh lemon and ginger tea when I was feeling very under the weather.  It's hard to decide what to eat because everything coming out of the kitchen looks spectacular but my marinated beef and sauerkraut sandwich hit the spot. 
Roamers cafe Berlin
Miracle tea from the gods.

California Breakfast Slam, find on map
Mostly-Australian staffed and with a truly bizarrely phrased menu which appears to have been penned by an unemployed stand-up, this is where to head on a hangover for vast and delicious portions.  They also get their coffee from Five Elephant so you know it's good.  It'll look like you're in the middle of nowhere right up until you reach the door - reserve a table if you're more than two.


The Birdfind on map
Not strictly anywhere near Kreuzberg or Neukolln but still the best burger I've ever eaten in my life.  Well worth the migration up to the north of the city and best to make a reservation on a Sunday to tie-in with the Maurpark flea market being in full swing.

Jacky Terrasson
And here's a picture of me playing jazz piano on a stage in front of a lot of people.  
I don't think that needs any further explanation.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Women. Fashion. Power. Not a multiple choice.

There is a black and gold striped Biba jumpsuit on display in the Women Fashion Power exhibition at the Design Museum.  It prompted a discussion between two women next to me on how they could potentially make it out of the museum without anyone noticing they’d nicked it.  Being the philanthropic eavesdropper I am, I offered to distract the staff while they made a run for it.

After we opted out of resorting to a smash and grab, they started telling me about the first time they’d visited the Biba store on Kensington High Street in the 70s. They pointed at a photo of Twiggy lounging on a leopard print bed and said: “We’d never seen anything like it; we couldn’t believe our eyes.  The colours, and the people.  It was something else.”  They lit up telling me about this experience, this moment when the transformative possibilities of fashion were revealed to them.

This exhibition is about the many hundreds of moments when women through history have seen those possibilities and exploited them, to project, protect, inspire, disguise, manipulate, trademark, eschew, adopt, interpret, prosper and transform.  

Naomi Campbell's first Vogue cover in December 1987

It’s pretty safe to say that at least half of our group were not feeling at our most fashionable, or indeed powerful after a housewarming the night before had rendered us slightly lacklustre.  But listening to those two women talk about their worlds being turned upside down in Biba, I shook off my wine fuzz and walked around the rest of the exhibition with a huge smile on my face.

Every time I get dressed I’m thinking about having one of those moments for myself that day.  Drawing breath and facing down the boys' clubs, the glass ceilings, the catcalls, the depressing statistics and all manner of other daily crap, women are still climbing the hill we've been climbing for centuries.  I don't know when we'll reach anything like the top, but until then I want to employ every tool in my eclectic arsenal to enhance whatever it is I want to say, think, make or do.  Fashion is one of the most powerful tools we have, unwieldy though it may be, and I intend to use it. 

Go along and get your empowerment on before Women Fashion Power ends on 26 April.