Female on male sexual coercion in The Big Bang Theory isn’t funny

I’m going to (try to) tread lightly on this, as I am neither male, nor thankfully have any substantial experience of sexual coercion.

Also spoiler-alert: the below contains plot points for episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Glee which have aired in the US, but haven’t made it to UK screens yet.


I’m quite fond of the TV show The Big Bang Theory. However there is a particular running ‘joke’ which is starting to make me feel rather uncomfortable.

The character of Amy Farrah Fowler was introduced a few years ago, as a potential girlfriend for the intellectually brilliant but emotionally challenged Sheldon Cooper. At the start, Amy was clearly being portrayed as ‘The Female Sheldon’. She is his intellectual equal (although Sheldon himself would probably not accept that), a renowned academic in her field of Neuroscience, and her social skills are somewhat lacking.

Over the seasons both the character of Amy and her relationship with Sheldon has developed. The romantic dynamic between them is rather one-sided. Amy is head-over-heels in love with Sheldon; she would very much like their relationship to become more physical, and she is frustrated by Sheldon’s apparent lack of interest in sex.

At the start, this seemed like the kind of classic role-reversal with which TBBT likes to play. You can imagine the writers’ meeting where they decide it would be really funny to have the female ‘gagging for it’ and the male ‘not putting out’. And earlier on, this premise was a rich minefield of genuine humour. But more recently, I’m starting to feel increasingly uneasy about how this is portrayed.

Amy has been shown manipulating Sheldon into situations where she can derive some sexual satisfaction, while he is clearly oblivious as to what is really going on.

A few episodes later, Sheldon has a rare moment of true vulnerability, where he acknowledges that Amy and his pairing is probably headed for a full-blown sexual relationship, and he appears daunted by this prospect. In short: he is starting to feel pressured into having sex, both by his girlfriend and by societal expectations, and it’s quite scary for him.

It’s one of those odd moments you get in comedy shows, where the tone seems to be more dramatic than comedic, and I was left genuinely confused as to whether Sheldon is at this point a figure of fun, or of pathos.

At which point I thought to myself: if the gender roles here were reversed and the male was pressurising the female that wouldn’t be funny at all – at least to a reasonably enlightened 21st Century audience. But surely it’s the behaviour itself that is abhorrent, not the genders of the actors. Whether you are male or female, gay or straight – pressuring, manipulating or in any other way coercing someone into having sex is a horrible thing to do.

Compare and contrast Amy’s behaviour with that of Raj and Howard. Howard, prior to his marriage to Bernadette, was the archetypal sleazebag. He would hit on any woman he could find, his bravado and swagger clearly masked his insecurities, and he treats women with very little respect. Raj is equally messed-up with regard to women, unable to talk to them unless he has been drinking (or thinks he has been drinking), but nonetheless desperate for a romantic relationship.

Sidebar – quite what the writers are doing with Raj’s sexuality is anyone’s guess. One moment they are portraying him as a straight metro-sexual, the next playing up his effeminate qualities and implying that the bromance between him and Howard is a frustrated homosexual affair. More annoyingly, this is always done as an object of humour, so I’ve now lost track of whether we are pointing and laughing because Raj might be gay, or because Raj might not be gay. At such times I think Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood put it best when he sighed disdainfully “You people and your quaint little categories!”

I digress – what Raj and Howard have in common is a sickening sense of entitlement. In the most recent episode Raj and Howard comment on how ‘unfair’ it is that women like “confident normal guys more than nervous weirdos!” Immediately I recalled reading this excellent post last year, about how feelings aren’t fair, and you are not entitled to have someone like you.

So how does that map onto Amy’s behaviour? She is, at times, undeniably ‘creepy’ towards Sheldon. She’s frustrated at being in a relationship which isn’t going at the speed she wants, but, presumably, is still in love with him and doesn’t want to leave. Her own feelings of frustration are intrinsically valid, but she’s not entitled to use those feelings to justify trying to make Sheldon do something for which he doesn’t feel ready.

Had this been an isolated event I probably wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it, but as it turns out, I saw something pretty similar on the latest episode of Glee a few days later. One of the male characters, Ryder, has a rather intense moment where he reveals that he was molested as a child by an older female who was babysitting him. Unlike with TBBT, Glee was playing this scene absolutely straight – there was no indication that the audience was meant to find this funny. I expected that, in typical Glee style, this revelation would be greeted with sympathy, hugs and then they would all sing a song about it.

What actually happened made my jaw drop. While the females in the group express support, Ryder’s male friends ask him what his problem is & doesn’t he realise how lucky he was to be getting some action. Ryder awkwardly realises that he has to show a bit of machismo, so he laughs it off, but clearly still feels unhappy. The whole scene is laid on with a trowel (Glee doesn’t really do subtle) so I assumed that they would come back to it later on, and the male Glee-Clubbers would learn a valuable life-lesson about how all sexual abuse is wrong, regardless of the genders of the perpetrator or victim. Instead, there’s a short scene where a female character, Kitty, confides in Ryder that something similar happened to her once, and she understands his pain. Which is fine as far as it goes. But it left me screaming at the TV: What about everyone else? Are you really going to just leave this with a bunch of boys thinking that female on male rape ‘doesn’t count?’

Glee will, I fervently hope, come back to this later, neatly signposting it with a repeat of the revelation scene in the recap at the top of the show. Because surely they can’t just let this hang there? I guess from my privileged, liberal mindset, I was genuinely surprised that the attitude that ‘female on male rape doesn’t count’ is prevalent enough to be shown on a TV show as a first response to a young person sharing that it had happened to them. I know you get characters in fiction (and regrettably reality) who don’t believe rape is a problem full stop, but surely we are supposed to disagree with them.

I noticed on Facebook that the anti-feminist bingo card is doing the rounds again. Generally I agree with this, but I have always been baffled by the hating on the term “Equalist”. As I said earlier, shouldn’t it be the behaviour we abhor, more than the genders of the actors? If it would be bad for a man to do something to a woman, why would it be acceptable for a woman to do it to a man? I accept that the power dynamics (physical, emotional, mental) between men and women are sometimes unequal, so a male acting upon a female may have a disproportionately worse effect on the female, than if the female were to act upon a male in the same way. But I would strongly contend that even where that is the case (which I would also contend is the exception rather than the rule) just because the total effect is ‘less bad’ that doesn’t make it ‘good.’

As a female I have no idea what it is like to be a man, and as someone who has thankfully never been sexually assaulted I have no idea what that is like either. So I am doubly ignorant as to what a male who has been molested by a female might feel afterwards. But as a human capable of empathy, I can imagine that any kind of sexual violation and betrayal of trust must be horrific.

Returning to The Big Bang Theory – to be absolutely clear I am not implying that Amy wants to rape Sheldon. But depicting her desperate attempts to get Sheldon to sleep with her as ‘funny’ leaves me with the feeling that the writers are, to some extent, subscribing to this idea that because Amy is a woman and Sheldon is a man, her coercive behaviour is more socially acceptable, and therefore fair game for comedy.

Listen to the dialogue in this scene. Sheldon is explicitly saying “Stop.” He asks his partner for help, and she responds by joining in. Imagine if this depicted a woman pinned down by 2 men. Still funny?

Part 2 of Hen Do – A Philosophical Geek Out

Last Sunday morning I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on account of not staying up all night clubbing.

We were off to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. The highlight of my weekend – aside from celebrating my friend’s impending nuptials of course!

It turns out one of of the other revellers is as big a Whovian as me, so we went round the costumes and artefacts together getting our Nerd on, and effortlessly outclassing the rest of the visitors with our extensive who-trivia. (Which earned us some rather dirty looks from a few of the older gentleman, who obviously felt young ladies should not be bigger fans than they were!)

And then, as is the custom whenever two Doctor Who aficionados get together, the conversation turns more serious. Solemnly she asked me if I, as the Doctor, would have destroyed the Daleks on Skaro in the Classic Tom Baker story “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Obviously this isn’t a question one takes lightly. I need to give this some thought. After a minute I realise that to answer this question I need more information.
“Which Doctor am I?”
Of the 11 incarnations that have so far graced our screens (Red Nose day specials and the abysmal Peter Cushing film notwithstanding) I feel that each Doctor would have responded to this moral quandry quite differently. Troughton and Davison wouldn’t have done it – they were too nice. Whereas Colin Baker was always a bit of a bastard, by which I mean that he was (for my money) one of the least ‘human’ doctors. Not for him the constraints of homo sapien morality. Similarly Christopher Eccleston would totally have connected the wires. His backstory makes it clear that he (attempted) to destroy the entire Dalek race previously, and the experience has left him with what is essentially PTSD.

That was 5 days ago and apparently it’s been preying on my mind. Earlier today the following occurred to me: towards the end of The Parting of the Ways, Jack gets killed by the Daleks. Rose then brings him back to life as an Immortal. At which point he becomes a fact – a fixed point in time to which the Tardis then strenuously objects. (Sidebar – might this offer a clue as to why the Tardis now appears to hate Clara?!) But if Jack is now a fixed point in time, then the survival of the Daleks up to the point that they kill Jack must have been inevitable! Tom Baker’s doctor had no choice.

All of which demonstrates why Doctor Who is the perfect philosophical programme. There’s all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff which covers your basic metaphysics. There are ethical conundrums aplenty. Some great food for thought on aesthetics; in a vast universe populated with aliens, who’s to say what is beautiful and what is ugly. And if that wasn’t enough you also get to play with propositional logic. In an ever-expanding canon of material, which apparent logical inconsistencies can be explained away and which can’t. Tracing the logical validity of a complex argument is not the easiest thing to do, and Dr Who is a brilliant mental scratching post upon which to sharpen the critical faculties.

Hen Do

This weekend I went on the Hen Do of a friend and colleague. I don’t have that many female friends to start with, still fewer who are not already married so I have limited experience of Hen Parties. I knew we had an action packed weekend ahead of us and I was a little nervous about hanging out with a group of people I barely knew. In that event I was happily worrying over nothing. Her friends are lovely and we bonded over a white water rafting session and a Masterclass in Cuban Cocktail Making. We had the obligatory games of making our Hen guess how her betrothed would have answered various intimate questions, replete with anatomically themed prizes. We drank, we giggled, we fortified ourselves over an Italian dinner, and then we went to a nightclub.

This was the part I had been dreading. As I have previously blogged, I don’t really do late nights. I’m definitely a morning person. Get me up at 5 in the morning, and while I won’t be particularly happy about it I will be functional. Keep me up after midnight however and I turn into a pumpkin. I’ll have been unattractively petulant for the past hour anyway, but after midnight I just stop. Woe betide if you haven’t got me into bed by then.

But, I’m away for a mate’s pre-wedding party and I am aware that I should make a special effort. After the rafting I have some water trapped in my ear, and on the advice of my roommate I lie down on my side. My bed is by a large window and I curl up like a cat in the little sun trap which has obligingly appeared. I drift off into a pleasant slumber. At least I assume I do. I wake up about an hour later having drooled on the pillow, which I don’t generally do whilst conscious. Annoyingly this pool of liquid emanating from my body is not from my ear as hoped, but I’m barely caring about that, instead focussing on the delightful realisation that I Got A Nap.

The reason I am so pleased about this is that any period of actual sleep I can get during the day extends the period of time I can remain awake and alert later on. Perhaps now with the right combination of alcohol, sugar and general exuberance I can make it through the clubbing portion of the weekend after all.

So we’re all nicely tipsy from our cocktail session (but not rolling around drunk out of our skulls like most of the other hen parties I’ve seen in Cardiff tonight.) I’ve taken the risky decision to sip a diet coke through dinner (normally I avoid all caffeine after about 3pm) followed by a digestif of Amaretto to ramp myself back up for the night ahead. We take a short walk to the club and although I’m still feeling trepidation about what’s to come I have some confidence that I won’t be bailing out straight away due to exhaustion.

I pay my £2 cover charge and step into a crowded room with pulsating lights and bodies, the latter crowded at the bar, gyrating on the dancefloor and draped over bannisters. The Wall of Sound rushes towards me, only it’s covered in evil looking spikes. I know at once I’ve made a mistake. I generally don’t get panic attacks, and knowing people who do I would not want to debase that hellish experience by saying my discomfort is in any way comparable to what they suffer. But the atmosphere in this sweaty club is palpable, and it’s an atmosphere which is threatening to choke me. Despite being in a large group of women, none of whom are overly intoxicated, I feel vulnerable.

Hands grasp me round my hips, ostensibly to keep me from stepping backwards while their owner slides past on his way to the bar. Do they linger on my body for slightly longer than is necessary? Am I just being paranoid? Was that a grope? Or is that a par-for-the-course physical interaction, inevitable when that many writhing humans are packed into so confined a space? People are shaking and shimmying in time to music which is slightly familiar to me, but hardly the soundtrack of my life. I’m astounded by their carefree movement. If I tried to do that I’d be either the unwilling victim or perpetrator of a mild sexual assault.

The floor is sticky. It’s a nightclub, of course the floor is sticky. The bar staff are filling tiny glasses to the brim with viscous, luminous liquids half of which are spilled en route to the gullets of those who would consume them. The room smells of stale sweat and beer (which is unpleasant but probably not carcinogenic so in my book an improvement on the days when cigarette smoke drove out all other offending odours.)

Belatedly I notice that the reason the music sounds familiar is that it hails from the 90s, not the 80s as promised. I was 7 years old when the 80s ended. I knew Christmas Carols and the theme song to Postman Pat. If it sounds familiar then it must mean I’m failing to enjoy myself in the wrong era. The only things which look authentically 80s to my eye are 2 enormous cathode-ray tube TV sets in cream plastic casing mounted on the wall. I look around me at the party-goers dancing and drinking and having fun. I wonder how often the term “cathode-ray tube” goes through the minds of the average attendee at this venue.

I realise this is not for me. I can no more go to a nightclub than I could run the Marathon. By which I mean: I accept it is not a superhuman feat, plenty of people do it. But you need a certain disposition to start with, or failing that, a substantial period of training. I have neither. I have spent the past decade of my leisure time reading, watching TV & drinking good ale (or good wine or good spirits) slowly in a comfortable environment (either home or a nice local pub) whilst conversing on topics both whimsical and earnest with friends. I relax knowing my property and my person is safe from danger, I can take my time to consume well crafted alcohol, and I can hear & be heard. With hindsight I wonder why I even tried to ‘go clubbing.’ It’s loud, frenetic, and kinda skeezy.

Perhaps I needed one last experience to realise that this is not something I will ever find fun. And that’s fine. Perhaps as a philosopher I’m always looking for the moral dimension to any given situation. I realised that didn’t need to be the case here. I could just accept that people enjoy different things. That doesn’t make me better, or worse, than anyone else.

So I make my excuses and head out towards my hotel to get into bed with John Scalzi. On the way out the doorman asks if I am coming back. I smile sweetly and say “Under no circumstances ever!”

Dead politicians

Margaret Thatcher died today. As a staunch liberal I had no love of Thatcher’s politics, and no interest in her non-political life. I cannot therefore truthfully express any sadness at her passing. Most of my friends are staunch liberals as well, and have split themselves into 2 groups: the gloaters and the chiders. A friend of mine saw the below pie chart on Facebook, which summarises the likely range of reactions. (The lefties in-fighting in particular made me chuckle.)

Thatcher Pie Chart

I am an atheist. Related to which I do not believe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. I believe that our character, memory, and all things which could contribute to a sense of personal identity reside in the brain. I believe when blood stops being pumped to that brain, depriving it of oxygen, then the brain ceases to function. I believe all the information stored in there, and the capacity for hierarchical thinking which separates us from other animals, also disappears.

When someone dies, while I endeavour to be sympathetic to those grieving and will say whatever I deem to be appropriate, privately I abhor the term “Rest in Peace.” They are not ‘resting’; they are dead. There is no ‘peace’; there is nothing. And they no longer exist as an entity to be ‘in’ any state of any kind.

So I am not writing “RIP Thatcher” on my Facebook wall, either in a spirit of genuine mourning, or in a spirit of (perhaps grudging) respect for someone I disliked.

Nearly 2 years ago my 93 year old maternal Grandmother died. She was a lovely, warm, caring lady. She’d had a long, full life. She had suffered loss, known great happiness, and was eminently sensible and stoic. She remained interested in the world around her right up until she passed away. She died knowing she was loved by her friends and family. Would that we were all so lucky.

I don’t think that she is up there somewhere looking down on us all, but I know that I and others carry the memory of her with us. When considering my own mortality and the mortality of those I love – that is the thought to which I turn for comfort: that after a person’s death, the effect that they had on other people continues.

I think it’s fair to say that when someone’s obituary starts with the words “The former Prime Minister of The UK” one can assume their influence on other people was larger than most of us will get the chance to exert. I am not saying that politicians should be expected to sacrifice their humanity for their work, in fact I really wish they wouldn’t, but I think when you get into the upper echelons of government you become the mouthpiece of your party’s policies. To the majority of citizens in the country – who do not know you personally – your status as an individual becomes secondary to your status as a member of the government. Accordingly, the masses’ attitude to you will be entirely based on what you have done as a politician (and what elements of your personal life have been deemed relevant by the media and consequently thrust into the limelight.)

It is an occupational hazard of being in power that there will be those who despise you. It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, as what all of the people find pleasing is heterogeneous. Those who are displeased with your decision to please someone else are likely to hate you for it. And as the power increases, the level of hatred increases too. This would be true of any politician, not just the particular ones who ‘polarised opinion’ (which I reckon will be one of the most used descriptors in the next few days.)

Today there are people expressing outrage at other people expressing glee at the death of a political figure. Those expressing glee are the people for whom Thatcher represented tremendous injustice, lack of compassion and cruelty. In celebrating her death, are they showing disrespect? Perhaps. But maybe they feel that disrespect is justified. Maybe that vicious instinct to jeer at the misfortune of others is the only way they have left to show how much anger they bore towards someone so instrumental in bringing about the hardships we face now. Are they forgetting that she was a person too? Perhaps. But in what meaningful sense was she a person to the majority of people? In the absence of any personal experience how could she be anything more than the figurehead of a political party? In fact, she was the person that party elected to shoulder the burden of public opinion, some positive, some negative. Much as I like to think that our current political system is populated with dunderheads, I refuse to believe there can be a serving MP anywhere with ambitions to become a cabinet minister, who is not aware of the following: if they become a ‘household name’, in some households that name will become a swear word, inextricably linked with the reviled party they represent.

Powerful people become ubiquitous pegs upon which a multitude of ideas can be hung. I’m sure that within the next few days there will be opinion pieces galore celebrating Thatcher’s status as the first (and to date, only) female British prime minister, or how she ‘stood up’ to the unions, or Argentina, or the IRA.

But surely this attitude is no different from those currently singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. It’s not about her, it’s about what she represented.

In death, the person that a politician was is lost to everyone except those that actually knew them. But what they represented becomes amplified, and frozen in time. No more blustering through interviews, insisting a quote was taken out of context. No more opportunities to debate an issue, raise awareness or jump on a bandwagon. And no more chances to make amends for the wrongs they have inflicted.

Dead politicians are remembered by vastly more people than they ever actually knew. I don’t believe in an immortal soul. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I believe that when we die, metaphysically all that remains of us is what other people remember. If you are a politician, be aware that for a lot of people all they will remember of you is evil. Because that is all they ever knew of you. To them, you were not a person.

On the other hand of course, you could remember that in actual fact you are a person. And you could try acting like that sometimes. Exercise some judgement, exude some compassion, exhibit some humour, show some humility. And then maybe, just maybe, some of those who disagreed with you will not put crass jokes on Facebook about dancing on your grave.

News and politics. Would that they never met.

Today seems to have been a bad day for politicians taking tragic and terrifying events and spinning them to their advantage. 2 days ago there was an outpouring of disgust at the Daily Mail’s vicious, manipulative and disingenuous ‘coverage’ on its front page of the Philpott case. The hate-mongering rag invited its readers to ponder the link between this horrifying crime and the fact that the chief perpetrator was claiming government benefits.

As far as I can tell, this fact had very little to do with Philpott’s actions. He was an abuser; a power-hungry misogynist obsessed with controlling the people in his life – in particular, but not limited to, women. The given reasoning for his actions was to win a custody battle, which would not be out of place as a plot line in a soap about beautiful rich people.

Anyway this was rightly vilified by non Mail Readers (although also rightly pointed out that this kind of nastiness would not be solved by Leveson inspired regulation in case anyone felt inclined to muddy the waters further.)

Disturbingly it seems that George Osborne is a Mail Reader. Or at least has decided that they speak for the majority of people who are likely to vote for Gideon et al. He has taken up their battle cry, by engaging with this offensive and stupid line of reasoning, and in so doing surely lending it more credence than it would otherwise have garnered.

In the liberal press, and indeed most of my social circle, much has been made of the revolting way that the most disadvantaged members of society have been targeted by the latest searing round of cuts. Apparently the best way to deflect such criticism is to point to a virtually unrelated crime and implicitly hold it up as the kind of the thing the cuts will prevent. Unless you have the slightest interest in having a reasoned debate based on actual facts and statistics and not hijacking an emotive tragedy as an ersatz straw man.

Sadly Osbourne isn’t the only one at it. His actions are mirrored by Cameron seizing on the looming North Korean crisis and brandishing it as a reason for renewing Trident. Looking like he had ejaculated with glee at a real-world crisis looming that he could use to terrify citizens into accepting the necessity of nuclear armament, Cameron insisted that as a country we still need “the ultimate weapon of defence.” Because that’s really going to help matters, and in no way leads to the destruction of all humanity. Well thought through Dave.

So both of these things have made me pretty grumpy today. There’s actual news about stuff that’s going on in the world, coverage of which may or may not be remotely accurate, impartial or up to date. There are the opinion-makers in the form of newspaper editors and columnists, increasingly blurring the line between delivery of factual information and editorialising. And then there’s politicians wading in saying whatever they think will get them the most black crosses on Thursday 2nd May. And when those politicians are sufficiently senior, the very fact that they have deigned to speak on a given subject becomes in itself newsworthy. So the coverage of the opinion comes back into the realm of objectively imparting the truth. And in so doing it’s picked up a legitimacy it didn’t have before. So whether or not there is the slightest link between the existence of a welfare state and the brutal killing of 6 children, this is now A Matter To Be Debated. I suspect this will be going on for a while, as grandstanding is rather easier than sifting through actual data to find actual correlations which may or may be causally related.

But on the other hand maybe we’ll all get so distracted by which class we fall into that we won’t pay attention.

Would I fall for a hoax caller?

Warning – Spoilers ahead!

I’ve just watched Craig Zobel’s film Compliance. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, brilliantly made, but tough to watch, and made all the more horrifying for being based on a true story.


Being a cynical kind of person I would usually take the words ‘based on a true story’ with a pinch of salt. But it seems that Zobel has taken the bare minimum of artistic license, if this article is to be trusted.

Normally I wouldn’t be overly concerned by the accuracy of a film like this. Bad stuff happens in real life, and sometimes people make films about them. I expect that certain elements of the story will be sexed-up, glossed-over, dumbed-down or some other verb-preposition combination.

But in this case, I find myself hoping that Compliance has heightened the reality of this situation. Sadly that really doesn’t seem to be the case.

For those of you disinclined to watch the film (for which I really can’t blame you) the premise is that a sociopathic hoax caller targets a fast-food restaurant posing as a policeman investigating an alleged theft. He succeeds in manipulating the frazzled manager into submitting one of her young employees to a series of increasingly horrendous degradations. It’s a grim study into what people will do when a supposed authority figure issues instructions.

Much has been made of the similarities to the infamous experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram, and various other instances of atrocities committed ‘under orders’. When I first heard about the Stanford Experiment (aged 17 studying for an AS Level in Psychology) my first response was to think that surely I wouldn’t do such a thing. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I wanted to believe the best about myself, that I would be capable of intelligence, compassion & courage under pressure. I desperately want to think that I wouldn’t throw the switch that supposedly delivers an electric shock to an innocent victim because a person in a white coat told me it was necessary.

But how accurate is that, really? Earlier I said I was normally pretty cynical, but in certain circumstances might my critical faculties desert me, as they seem to have deserted the people involved here? What might slip under my radar if I’m not paying attention?

I’m not saying this is in any way comparable, but several years ago I was at home by myself and a chap rang the doorbell. He rattled off some spiel about being in the area checking people were on the correct energy tariff. Somehow I got the impression that he was there to check the meter, so I let him in, (for my sins probably not checking his ID properly, more on that in a moment) and then he started taking details about our payment plan. After a few minutes I came to my senses, realised I was being doorstopped and made him leave. I was furious with myself for letting my guard down. I couldn’t quite understand how I had fallen for it to the extent that I had. I figured I must have been having an off day.

Ordinarily that wouldn’t have happened. I like to think of myself as a healthily suspicious person, and I’m usually pretty sensitive to being ‘sold’ anything. (One of the few good outcomes from my dark days in retail banking is knowing a few basic techniques for which I am constantly on the look out.)

If I had mentally identified this bloke as a salesperson, he’d never have got across the threshold. But the fact that I wasn’t concentrating meant that I mistook him for a meter reader, which meant that I identified him as an Authority Figure. Admittedly not a very senior authority figure, but instantly I had engaged my ‘compliance’ setting, rather than my ‘trust no-one’ setting. And it turns out these settings are wildly different. Whilst I do endeavour to treat every human on the planet with a basic level of respect, even if they are scuzzy salespeople, when I’m in paranoid mode I will be politely curt, and treat everything that is said with incredulity. But if I’m in Doing What I’m Told mode then all that goes out the window. Suddenly I am helpful, subservient, and ready to assist in any way I can. Because I don’t want to be told off. Or thought rude.

So, the ID thing. I knew that checking ID is basic self preservation, and that I really shouldn’t be putting the prospect of mildly inconveniencing a stranger above my own safety. (And for the record I am a lot more diligent about this than I used to be.) But I do feel a twinge of something like guilt thinking I might be insulting someone by demanding they prove who they are. Like I’m insinuating that I expect them to be a liar, thief, cheat or worse.

So might this impulse to please people whom I perceive to be in charge lead me to humiliate and abuse someone else? After giving it some thought I have decided not. While past experience leads me to think I might be capable of getting myself into some awful situation by being too polite, I actually don’t think I’d let that happen to someone else. I sometimes struggle to stand up for myself, but have rather less difficulty standing up for other people. As well as learning some crass but effective techniques for trying to sell packages accounts to little old ladies at the bank, I also learned that when push came to shove I wasn’t prepared to be part of that culture. Perhaps it sounds a little melodramatic, but I made an ethical decision to leave retail banking and make a career somewhere else. I was given orders to do things I thought were wrong, and when it became obvious that I couldn’t reason with the people giving those orders I walked away.

But it’s easier to come to a decision like that over time. When you’re under immediate pressure it’s much harder to think clearly. By the end of the film what’s taking place seems very extreme, but by this point the hoaxer has built up a relationship with his victim. I’m not usually a fan of the slippery slope argument, but you can clearly see it in action here. Once the manager has undertaken to obey a few basic commands, and crucially received praise for doing so, then I can well imagine how each additional step must seem like a natural progression.

Forewarned is forearmed, and if nothing else this film has reminded me of some potential pitfalls when dealing with other people. Real authority figures should not be offended if you check their ID or question their methods. Responding to an odd sounding request with polite scepticism is not necessarily the same thing as disobeying. And any genuine authority system should encourage such scrutiny. Of course if the authorities really are corrupt and regard the absence of mindless compliance as a threat then we have a whole different problem. But that’s for another post.

Redeeming Disney Princesses

About 3 years ago there was a line in an episode of 30 Rock where Jenna expressed her concern about a generation of little blonde white girls who had no idea they were attractive because it had been so long since there had been a Caucasian Disney princess.

Earlier this month The Big Bang Theory celebrated International Women’s Day with an episode about encouraging girls to get into science. In the episode, the 2 supporting female characters, one with a doctorate in microbiology and the other in neuroscience, play hooky from their jobs to go to Disneyland. They spend their day having the “Princess Makeover”, getting transformed into Cinderella and Snow White respectively, then take part in a conference call to a middle school class of girls telling them why they should pursue scientific careers. The scene works wonderfully as a critique of the notion that an empowered woman must choose between femininity and intellectualism, and in no way makes it seem like ladies can be as high-minded and ambitious as they want, but deep down they all want to be dressed up pretty and get swept off their feet by Prince Charming. Probably.

(As an aside, Mayim Bialik who plays Amy on the show wrote this post about her take on the episode which is worth a read in itself.)

Then a few days ago someone posted this AMAZING video on Facebook, of a bloke doing a 4 part acappella rendition of politically charged epilogues to certain Disney films.

It turns out I’m really easily influenced! All it has taken is a sprinkling of pop culture references to get me hankering after the entire Disney Classic back catalogue. And so I decided to watch the lot.

I remember watching a few of them as a kid, but I think they were pretty much all at friends’ houses. I don’t know if my parents ever made a conscious social decision not to fill my head with utter claptrap, or if they figured that spending hundreds of pounds on a complete VHS collection of films that their only daughter would probably just watch once was not a prudent investment. Either way, I was certainly not brought up on animated fairytale mythology. When I was about 14 I was in a school play of 6 of the Grimm stories. They were presented as closely to the original, dark morality tales as we could get. I seem to recall the director actually saying “We’re doing these stories without all that Disney crap.”

I’ve spent the best part of 30 years thinking that hating the Disney Princess trope is Lesson One in Being a Feminist. But if I turn my movie marathon into a critical exercise in examining my own prejudices and seeking to find redemption for the damsels-in-distress, that makes it ok right?

So one snowed-in weekend later – does the canon of Disney Princess films have anything to say to a modern-day feminist?

In short – not so much in the early days, so no surprises there.
I decided to start with Cinderella, made in 1950. It really is pretty dreadful. The irritating household vermin take up half the film with their antics, and the songs are nothing special. It seems redundant to state that Cindy is a doormat as that’s the whole point of the story, but it’s worth pointing out the rather offensive idea that despite years of abuse and degradation a person must retain a meek disposition or otherwise your Dreams Won’t Come True.

I expected Sleeping Beauty to be more of the same, and was rather pleasantly surprised. The animation is pretty stylish compared to Cinderella, and at times is looks a lot like a computer game. Brier Rose/Aurora doesn’t get much more to do than her blonde cousin 9 years earlier, but the 3 witches manage to show a bit of mettle, as does Prince Philip who has been upgraded from barely more than an idea in Cinderella to an all action hero.

The next Princess film is the Little Mermaid, 30 years later. At last we have a female protagonist who has a mind of her own, although she is a bit irritating. Weirdly the animation looks really poor compared to the earlier films, but the songs have got a lot catchier. Also it’s rather refreshing that Ariel is in part to blame for her own situation, and not just entirely at the mercy of the baddie.

I was starting to get a little disheartened at this point. We’ve reached the late 80s, feminism is definitely in the cultural eye, and the Disney Princesses are still getting into peril and waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince. Thank goodness for Beauty and the Beast a mere 2 years later. Belle is smart & principled, rejecting the advances of boorish local eligible bachelor Gaston. Instead, to save her father, Belle opts to get herself locked up with the violent, possessive beast. With whom she then falls in love, in what can only really be adequately described as a rapid-onset Stockholm Syndrome. Ok, that’s a bit weird. But compared to earlier films this is a huge leap forward. Sure the film ends with Belle dancing about in a gorgeous dress with a handsome prince. But to get there, she’s basically doing the rescuing. Nowadays it seems like a huge cliché to say that looks don’t matter, but in terms of the typical Disney Princess values, B&B is the first time this moral has been properly communicated.

Just one year later Aladdin came out. Jasmin is a spoiled brat, but to her credit she knows she’s a spoiled brat. She’s very much a bit character though as this is mostly a buddy film between the titular hero and the irrepressible Genie, exuberantly bought to life by Robin Williams in a master stroke of casting. Jasmin has a perfectly reasonable beef with the requirement that she marries a prince, although set against the backdrop of true poverty outside the castle walls it comes across a bit as the complaints of a poor little rich girl. Even still, it’s nice to see that in the closing decade of the 20th century Disney are finally starting to produce films which speak to feminist concerns.

And then it all goes wrong. Pocahontas is dreadful. It’s patronizing, dull and makes a mockery of the historical events. Our heroine can’t really be said to know her own mind since she does whatever a talking willow tree tells her to. Ok, she gets to scamper about in the trees a bit, and she’s a fair white-water rafter, but the diving-in-front-of-a-fatal-blow-to-the-cranium-to-save-the-man-she-loves thing just seems like another case of a woman subverting her own life for a man. Bah!

Continuing with the globe trotting theme Disney next takes us to China where an intelligent, awkward daughter is engaging in an act of self-sacrifice to save her father. So similar to Beauty and the Beast in that respect. But rather than sacrificing her liberty as Belle did, Mulan sacrifices her femininity. As Shakespeare will attest, nothing garners a giggle like cross-dressing, and bits of Mulan are laugh-out-loud funny. This is helped in no small measure by Eddie Murphy’s ineffectual dragon, taking a leaf out of Robin William’s book. Mulan gets to do some pretty cool stuff, even after she is unmasked as a girl, and gets a romance sub plot into the bargain. We’re now in 1998, and I’m hoping that the days of princesses getting rescued by princes are behind us.

I agonized over whether to include 2002’s Lilo and Stitch. I’d never seen it before, although I was aware that it doesn’t really fit into the Disney Princess category. But after watching I decided this was one of the better feminist offerings. I love that the 2 (human) main characters are female and yet that doesn’t actually seem to be relevant to the plot. The story would really be no different if it were about 2 grief stricken brothers struggling to get on with their lives, and then having them turned upside down by a vicious exiled alien genetic experiment. And for me that is a huge part of feminism in fiction – that characters are not male by default. Writers interested in equality should not only create female characters when they need a love interest, a victim, a seductress, or are self consciously writing a ‘female’ story. At its heart, Lilo & Stitch is just a film about 2 people with all their good qualities and their bad. Of all the Disney films I’ve seen this one actually made me tear up a bit, as Stitch pleads to be allowed to stay on earth. “This is my family. Is small and broken, but still good.”

The film which prompted the 30 Rock scene at the top of this post (I know – this is going on a bit) is 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. Tiana is hard-working, self-reliant, realistic but ambitious. She’s a little highly strung, but spending some quality time as a frog in the company of giddy wronged Prince Naveen mellows her right out. Which is where I have a bit of a problem. Having grafted for years to make her dream come true she seems awfully ready to toss it all in and hang out at the bayou waiting to get eaten by extras from True Blood. Plus she’s meant to be this amazing cook, but all she seems to do is put more tobasco in stuff! But it’s still nice to see a solid work ethic at play, and come the end she seems to have mastered that elusive work-life balance, which makes her one of the better role-models Disney have ever served up.

Jenna needn’t have worried. Just one year after Disney’s first animated African American leading lady, Tangled returned us to the blonde. The story of Rapunzel is for my money one of the nastiest fairytales going. Sure it doesn’t have the out-and-out gore of Cinderella’s step-sisters slicing their toes off to fit into the glass slippers, or Malficient’s attempted infanticide out of spite in Sleeping Beauty. But Gothel’s abuse of Rapunzel is the most insidious, in that Rapunzel truly loves her for it. Cinderella may be a drip but at least she is aware that her life sucks. Rapuzel is not just trapped inside the tower, she’s trapped inside her own false perception of her life. In the past 7 decades Disney has been moving away from the overt damsel in distress scenario where princesses need to be physically rescued. Had they made the story of Rapunzel in the 50s it would probably have been virtually indistinguishable from Sleeping Beauty. So how do they do in the light of 21st Century sensibilities? Pretty damm well I reckon. Rapunzel is realistically conflicted as her prison shatters around her. She’s got some gumption, but isn’t impossibly sassy. And the film climaxes in a rather sweet moment of mutual self sacrifice.

Visually, much has been made of the journey from 2D to 3D pictures, which is reflected in the characters as much as the style of animation. 5 minutes of dialogue between characters in later films gives you a better impression of a relationship than in the whole of Cinderella.

I decided to leave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs until last. I thought it would make the most interesting contrast to work through to the most recent, then go back to 1937, to the first full-length cel animated feature film ever made. Also, I’d never seen this one all the way through either.

What hit me first was has cool it looked. Earlier I was struck by the difference between the clean, round shapes of Cinderella and the more angular, stylised effect in Sleeping Beauty. Snow White is definitely more like the latter. It’s dark and creepy and interesting. Snow White is animated like a silent movie actress, tiptoeing through the dwarves house with elbows up. Much like Cinderella, her brutal treatment at the hands of the wicked queen hasn’t impaired her ability to interact with others, and more of the film than I’d like is about housework. But the most anti-feminist aspect of this is something that has been going strong in Disney fairy tales for its whole 75 year history, namely the vanity of the female antagonist. The Wicked Queen is obsessed with her own youth and beauty, much like Gothel in Tangled, and she will do whatever it takes to hang onto it.

The Disney Princesses perhaps can be reclaimed for the feminist cause. However the wicked witches I fear are doomed to languish under the dark mantle of the jealous older woman for all time.

Is my CRM racist?

One of the frustrating things about my work is dealing with a rather antiquated system which spits out garbage whenever it comes to a name which includes an accent. I work with teachers from all over the country, and occasionally further afield, and unsurprisingly they don’t all have names like John Smith.

I’m not particularly techy, but I am reliably informed this comes down to how the information is coded which has to do with letters being assigned a numerical value. The standard by which this was achieved was ASCII, up until about 1993. ASCII was notoriously British-centric, which is to say that it gave 52 letters (the 26 letter A-Z alphabet in both upper and lower case) numerical values but entirely neglected any letters or accents from any other language or culture. This post includes some of the interesting pitfalls of trying to create a system of storing a person’s name.

According to Wikipedia, the modern version of ASCII was published in 1986, which built on previous versions dating back to the 60s. Having watched the odd programme my Television Set, it turns out that The Past was Racist. That’s how you can tell it’s The Past. (Other helpful clues include sexism, homophobia and everyone smoking cigarettes.)

I understand that these days most systems use a new standard called UTF8, which has an improved, although not perfect, appreciation of diversity.

Not being the most tech savvy of people I only have a slight grasp of the difficulties involved in turning the rich, varied and complex world of language into a string of ones and zeroes. I have tremendous respect for programmers, developers and computer scientist of all types. I have no wish to belittle their achievements or suggest that they are lazy, prejudiced or incompetent.

That said, they almost certainly are lazy, prejudiced, and incompetent by dint of being human beings. These are not necessarily bad qualities to have. Laziness drives innovation and efficiency. If everyone’s work ethic was dialled up to 11 we’d still be hoeing fields by hand, and not considering how to get the job done faster so we could get some down time. If we weren’t pre-disposed to make snap judgements based on very little information we wouldn’t have evolved past Getting Eaten By Creatures With Massive Teeth. And if we weren’t incompetent we would get utterly hung up on every flaw, and nothing would actually get done, as anyone who has ever dealt with a perfectionist will tell you.

Amongst the tropes I often hear from my more techy friends are: “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, “this can be fast, cheap or accurate: pick any two” and “you can’t take everything into account.” All very good points to make – as systems get built, assumptions need to be made, and priorities need to be set.
But be aware that those assumptions and priorities will say a lot about you, and when taken together with the assumptions and priorities of other people, patterns will emerge and conclusions will be drawn.

When I see my system spit out a string of garbage in place of a ‘foreign’ name (which has decreasingly little meaning anyway) I conclude that it is because the people who made the system didn’t didn’t care enough that they were designating some names as ‘normal’ and other names as ‘abnormal.’ Think that doesn’t matter? A while ago I read this post about the damage done by casually normalising a particular skin tone which makes the point more elegantly than I could.

The funny thing about making assumptions and setting priorities is that we are so often unaware that we have done it. And to me it is our unintended biases which can cumulatively make such a big difference to the kind of society we have, as much as the conscious decisions.

I have my fair share of privilege in this world. So I try to keep my eyes open to how the world would appear to me if I wasn’t white, straight and affluent. Perhaps this could all be cynically chalked up to middle-class guilt. But I still think it’s worth scrutinising my actions through the veil of ignorance when I can.

The idiot tax

Apparently the price of a standard lottery ticket is doubling from £1 to £2. According to some of the faces on breakfast news this is motivated solely by greed on the part of Camelot. I feel sorry for the people who, in these straitened economic times, have this extra money taken off them every week at gunpoint. It must be awful! As commuting fares, the price of food, fuel costs and other daily expenditure continues to rise, the last thing these poor souls need is yet another mandatory outgoing getting jacked up, by 100% no less!

<Pause for comic effect>

Oh! It’s not mandatory? You don’t have to pay this? Hmmm…

Well, it’s still a kick in the pants isn’t it? I mean if you’ve got used to shelling out £1 each week for a minimum winning of £10 and then your outlay increases to £2 your ROI plummets from 900% to 400%. Still in this climate, a 400% return isn’t too shabby. That beats current ISA rates by abut 397.25%. It’s still looking like a pretty good deal.

<Second pause for comic effect.>

Oh! That’s not an accurate picture of how this investment works? You’re not guaranteed to get that minimum £10 prize? In fact more often than not you don’t get anything at all?

I rather like the description of the lottery as an idiot tax. I have paid the lottery on a couple of occasions, but not for years and years. A few months ago Terry bought a scratch card to make up the minimum spend in a newsagents so he could pay by credit card. He bought it home, and to our delight we won our £1 stake back again. The next day I took our winning scratch card back to the newsagent and asked for my spoils. The cashier was happy to hand over my pound coin but commented that most people chose to buy another scratchcard with the proceeds of any successful prior cards, thereby vastly increasing the likelihood of the net gain from the venture ending up at zero. This doesn’t sound like sensible fiscal management to me.

I’m not much of a gambler. I’m pretty miserly when it comes to money, and I genuinely don’t get the appeal of chucking money away when the odds of getting something back are so heavily not in your favour. I don’t really understand people being angry about this. You don’t like the idea of spending £2 on a ticket which probably won’t win anything anyway? Don’t then. Buy yourself an ice cream instead. Put it in a piggy bank and save up to buy a new video game. Stick it in a charity bucket. There are plenty of better uses for two quid.

(As an aside this morning I listened to the Shadow Minister for Sport [and as an aside within an aside what the hell is the lottery doing under the remit of sports anyway?!] saying he was concerned that the amount of lottery money that would be available for ‘good causes’ would drop if the ticket increase put punters off. This seems kind of twisted to me. Camelot gives some money to good causes from the proceeds of ticket sales, but they are also paying Lottery Duty to the government, a Sales Commission to the retailer, their own operating costs etc. Playing the lottery is a really inefficient way of giving money to good causes.)

A rather more politically charged description I’ve heard for the National Lottery is the Poor Tax.

At the start of the year The Campaign for Fairer Gambling published a report indicating there is evidence that unscrupulous bookmakers are deliberately targeting poor areas, particularly regarding the installation of the much maligned Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, dubbed the ‘Crack Cocaine’ of the gambling world. Unsurprisingly the gambling industry vehemently objects to this characterisation. I haven’t read the report, I don’t know how accurate it is, I don’t know what if any bias has gone unpublished.

However the handy thing about industry expansion is that it gives you a lovely big data set to work with. On a small level you can argue the toss about whether a couple of extra bookies cropping up on the bad side of town represents a trend. But if you get enough data from enough different areas then the numbers start to speak for themselves.

2013 is the International Year of Statistics. Understanding statistics will help determine whether the gambling industry is as morally bankrupt as it’s made out to be. It also helps people to understand probability. As the Monty Hall Problem shows, humans typically struggle to understand probability. Our intuitions about risk, useful perhaps 250,000 years ago when we were running away from lions on the savannah, are frequently mathematically unsound. Perhaps if we understood how probability works we wouldn’t buy into the gambling industry in the first place.

I am not the customer. I am the product. And this product is revolting.

One of my favourite Private Eye Cartoons is the Scenes you Seldom See series by Barry Fantoni. I remember reading the below one yonks ago.


I’m not sure when that was first published in Private Eye. The chap who has it on his blog put it there in 2003, so it’s at least 10 years old. At the time I first saw it I thought it was brilliant.

Now, spam is a constant blight on my daily life. My spam folder on my email account is full of messages. My recycling bin at home is full of junk mail. I get regular calls on my work number telling me I am entitled to claim compensation for being mis-sold PPI. My Facebook timeline is filled with adverts for uninteresting companies because one of my friends has ‘liked’ them.

It seems putting up with unwanted messages is the cost of doing business, i.e. if I want the free email & the free social media then I have to make my peace with getting a fair amount of dross in with the content that I actually want.

I am not the customer here. I am the product. My eyeballs, my attention and my capacity to suddenly desire worldly goods are being sold to advertisers. This in turn keeps Facebook and Twitter running, and free for me to use for my own purposes.

So am I supposed to just accept this?

In response to an anti-spam rant some people suggested that I don’t have the right to complain. I disagree. My complaint may not be successful, but I don’t think that should stop me from trying.

Here’s the thing about people being your product. People are sentient. They are capable of assessing a situation and then modifying their behaviour in order to maximise the benefit they will derive from it.

Some people seem to think that because getting a free social media service in exchange for receiving advertising is ‘the way it works’ then I have entered into a moral social contract with the business. This is where I have a problem. As a self-interested, rational agent I want what’s best for me. Ideally I would be able to use free services like Facebook & Twitter and not have to put up with any spam at all. If I can be bothered I’m entitled to try to pursue that aim.

Facebook might not like this attitude, but they made the decision to design a business which sells rational, self interested agents in the first place. If they didn’t want their ‘product’ to rebel against them they shouldn’t have gone into the business of selling something which has a brain.