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Monthly Archives: August 2008

Friday webcomic

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Art by Withiel. Storyboard by Penny Red. Lettering by Twitch.


Reconstructed males

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There have recently been some fantastic investigative features in the print and electric press on the touchy subject of female surgical circumcision, also called cosmetic labiaplasty. One of the best, curiously enough, appeared in this month’s DIVA. This is a topic that needs airing and re-airing, but I’m going to take this space to tentatively suggest that there is also room in the feminist movement for a discussion of that curiously taboo subject: male genital mutilation.

In a culture of commodified testosterone, growing numbers of boys and men, some as young as three or four, some as old as eighty, are turning to genital mutilation as a form of self-harm. This in itself is not a new phenomenon, but as the culture of shame, anger and idolisation around the male sexual organ continues to increase, the phenomenon of boys and men damaging their own genitals, sometimes with extreme violence, is gathering pace. There are myriad individual reasons for this phenomenon, many of which are exacerbated by mental illnesses such as depression and paranoid schizophrenia, but the baseline reasons are fairly simple to grasp: a lot of boys have no frame of reference for what their penis should look like. Men are taught to see the appendage as a source of unimaginable sexual shame and embarrassment, or as a symbol of a sick, overzealous , hypermasculised culture in which they did not ask to be included, or, more frequently, both.

It’s not only the mentally ill who mutilate their genitals in private: you can pay a surgeon to inflict far more radical damage, a snip (literally) at £3-12,000. I’m talking, of course, about the booming industry of surgical penis ‘enlargement’, the nearest male equivalent to labiaplasty. We’ve all had versions of those relentless spam emails, offering in poor English to furnish us with a magnificent schlong for the price of a university education. Well, they keep coming because some people keep clicking – millions of anxious men and boys, in fact, all over the world, every day.

Yes, it’s fucking political. Male sexual neurosis is massively damaging, to feminism, to society, and to men themselves. This is not male apologism, or backsliding, it’s one feminist’s request for more discussion of a damaging socio-sexual taboo, in the context of a blog post in which I get to shout ‘COCK!’ a lot.

There, I’m glad I got that out of my system.

Gruesome butchery as labiaplasty undoubtedly is, the butchery involved boils down to a fairly straightforward amputation. Not so with penis ‘extension‘: I’ll spare you details of just what can go wrong, because Penny Red is a welcoming family blog, but suffice it to say: lots. And often. If you enjoy Bizarre magazine, you may click here now.

Thanks to the stalwart work of feminist writers and bloggers, there are now a lot of good, informative sites out there setting the record straight on what real female genitals look like. Sites that reassure women of all ages that they, too, are far less abnormal than they might have feared. Sisters working tirelessly and for free to undo the visceral harm done by the iconography of pornography and the language of fiction, erotica and women’s magazines in persuading girls that their vulvae should present as neat, hairless, odourless, tight pink slits with the sole purpose of funnelling equally tight, odourless, virginal vaginas, where all sexual sensation occurs. This is an ugly and damaging lie.

So where is the equivalent iconoclasm working to tear down the damaging fictions that young men internalise about their gender and physical sex?

The rhetoric of dickhood is entirely misleading, with emphasis on stiffness, straightness, rigidity, awesomeness, bestiality and hard, raging, pole-like qualities. The myriad of slang terms for the appendage range from the sublime – schlong, manhood, prick, dick – to the ridiculous – one-eyed trouser snake, luncheon meat truncheon! In fact, as most people are secretly aware, even the most impressive penis is no fearsome beast. They are extremely fragile things, normally soft, squishable and defenceless, generally flaccid, delicate , painful when struck, sensitive to touch and temperature. Freud was wrong. It’s not women who ‘envy’ the fiction of the perpetually hard, straining, bestial cartoon-penis – it’s other men,. That envy can largely be blamed on the shocking lie culturally perpetrated to convince young boys that their genitals are supposed to symbolise their masculinity and accordingly be other than the sweet, small, defenceless things they are.

If you’re laughing, stop. Now. I don’t believe it’s possible to call oneself a progressive feminist whilst taking the piss out of the sexual organs of just under one half of the human race. When it comes down to it, everyone’s genitals are ridiculous: messy, demanding, confusing and difficult to manage, with no instruction booklet and contents that generally differ wildly from the serving suggestion on the box. This does not mean that they are abnormal, inadequate or worthy of the childlike awe, tentative mockery, anger and aggrandisement that by turns characterise the treatment of the human prick in contemporary culture.

It is not surprising, then, that so many men and boys turn to surgery to change what they see as defective or abnormal, or to self-harm when they see a part of themselves as shameful and socially loaded in ways they reject. We just do not know how many men go through these experiences, how many operations are botched or how many wounds inflicted in private, because the subject matter is so sensitive that there simply isn’t enough data, and no comprehensive study has yet been done. All that we know is that it’s happening, and that it’s happening more and more.

The cultural markers of femininity are worn like a cloak and meticulously judged – from breasts to width of the waist and hips to degree of ‘curviness’ to hairstyle to set of the face and features. For men, only one specific part of the body is sexualised, and it’s kept under wraps, endlessly mythologised and certainly not featured in any fashion spreads. Feminists might argue that because women’s whole bodies are inevitably sexualised, men have it easier. Those feminists are right: men do have it easier. But that doesn’t mean that men don’t get a raw deal too – where little girls grow up seeing examples of perfect sexual bodies plastered everywhere they look, little boys experience the opposite – the cock is spoken of in hushed tones and never revealed, fictionalised, aggrandised, reduced to a few furtive glances in locker-rooms and arcane priapic symbols scrawled on playground walls and toilet cubicles.

In a perfect world, school PHSE lessons would include mandatory classes on sex and gender, in which children would be shown lots of photographs – not crude and misleading technicolour ink-drawings – of what real genitals look like. During these ideal lessons there would be open discussion of gender roles, physical sex, sexuality, feminism and gender egalitarianism. It won’t happen on these prudish little islands any day soon, not here where so recently we had laws banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools, but it’s nice to dream. Some girls dream of ponies. Today I’m dreaming of full-frontal PHSE photography with explanatory notes. It’s a vision thing.

The movement to reclaim the female body as a self-defined space is still a vitally important one, and it is perhaps just as vital to complement that discussion by extending its rhetoric to the male form. Talking about the realities of the female body in its many forms is a starting point for massive amounts of crucial feminist discussion of physical femaleness, of personal femininity, and of the difference and interaction between the two and the socio-political realities they produce. Talking about the male body in a similar way, and specifically about the cock – unlike for women, the only explicitly sexualised part of a man’s body – might just promote similar much-needed debate about physical maleness, personal masculinity and the difference between the two. Or at very least, it might make a few more people hesitate before doing inadvisable violence to the most sensitive parts of their body and paying for the privilege.

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I am quasi-orgasmically pleased to announce that Penny Red is branching out. Along with the glorified textual rants you’ve come to know and tolerate, you will now be treated to a weekly webcomic, brought to you by the graphic wizardry of Withiel Black (links to the rest of whose work will follow shortly) and scripted by myself.

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I am quasi-orgasmically pleased to announce that Penny Red is branching out. Along with the glorified textual rants you’ve come to know and tolerate, you will now be treated to a weekly webcomic, brought to you by the graphic wizardry of Withiel Black (links to the rest of whose work will follow shortly) and scripted by myself.

Raising Our Game

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I’ve had a lot of interesting reactions to this post about the Welfare Reform Bill, in comments and via email. And the message of most of those reactions was: Pennyred, you said something nice about Labour! What the hell is that about?

Let me explain.

Am I angry with this government? Yes, I’m angry, I’m very angry, I’m fucking angry. New!Labour let us down. New Labour invaded Iraq and trampled on our civil liberties. Anger, tempered with a real energy for change, is the only sensible reaction. It’s okay. It’s okay to hate New Labour – as long as we always, always remember that the Tories are our only real alternative, and the Tories are so much worse. And this is why we need to stand up for socio-economic equality and human rights, and to look around for those politicians who are standing up for them, too. Actually, there are some. And they sure as hell aren’t wearing blue ribbons.

Take, for example, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, who I’ve mentioned on this blog before. He’s one of the first truly interesting politicians I’ve met, and in the space of half an hour the man made me want to smack him in the face and managed to raise all the little hairs on the back of my neck with a sudden lust for social change. Gleeful and slightly manic in the way that only a real politics junkie can be, Lammy is an expansive orator with a soundbite for every occasion (‘a strong economy is not enough – we need a good society!’ is one that I’ve now counted in five different speeches). He’s the young gun from outside the nepotistic cesspool of Westminster who finds himself ‘wheeled in’, in his own words, ‘to talk to angry young black men or angry young white men’ or, indeed, to any audience requiring a politician young people can relate to. He’s frighteningly clever, annoyingly inspiring, and the patronising git knows it, too. I hate him, I hate his terrible smug face, I hated him from the moment he opened his mouth, and I would vote for him in any election you care to mention, because he’s an uniquely talented politican who cares about the poor and the disenfranchised and the young and the desperate almost as much as he cares about stroking his own ego, and that’s a hell of a lot.

The Fabian Society. What an odd place for me to be doing a work placement. The Fabians are stuffy and weird and broiling with reformist energy, and if you took away their kettle and their chocolate biscuits the whole hundred-year-old organisation would implode in twenty-four hours. I have a massive amount of respect for them, because they are for things as well as against things, even if most of what they are for is getting important people into a room together to talk about welfare reform, child poverty and human rights, feeding them enough coffee to keep them sharp and then listening very, very carefully to what is said. I’m here to learn, because I believe in quiet socialist revolution, in radical systemic change. I’m here to learn, because I’m happy to stomp around and shout with my big fuckoff socialist-feminist boots on until I’m hoarse and aching, but I won’t stomp through blood in the streets. No thanks. What the hell can we do but try to change people’s minds?

Civil liberties, yes, yes, yes. A succession of New!Labour governments have made a string of vile and incomprehensible reforms to civil liberties which will take decades to repair, and which will probably lose them the next election. Idiocy; breathtaking idiocy. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that the Tories care one jot more about civil liberties than Labour. In fact, most of the reforms the Blair and Brown regimes have tried to force through have been won on the back of Conservative support in parliament because Labour back-benchers have revolted, time and time again, against their own government whom they saw betraying the ideals of liberty and equality to which a lot of these politicians have dedicated their lives. Whoever ends up in the driving seat in 2010, this country cannot do without a solid Labour presence in parliament, and the left needs to recognise that before it’s too late, before we’re landed with more LOL! leaders like the Johnson – hairdo on a pink and straining pillar of wilfully ignorant privilege.

We are cleverer than this. We are clever enough to recognise the better option of a bad handful when we see it. We are clever enough to distinguish between the principles of our elected representatives and the occasionally heartbreaking treachery of New!Labour governments. We are big enough and clever enough to get over the betrayal of the optimism of 1997 and grow the hell up, rather than running back to the Tories for a tummy-tickle and a few tax-cuts.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should stop holding Labour to account for its massive failures over the past decade. We must not forget how the mad optimism of 1997 was let down, even though it was always going to be. But we also need to remember what a luxury it is to be able to argue the details with a government which is, at least, nominally progressive; a government that sometimes talks about poverty, about human rights, about discrimination, equality and social mobility. A government that allowed civil partnerships. A government leading the parliament of Mo Mowlam, Tony Benn, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Harriet Harman, Dawn Primarolo and Diane Abbott. A government that encouraged, and continues to encourage, a female and ethnic minority presence in politics. A government that has no choice but to entertain industrial disputes because it still relies on Trade Unions to fund its big dinners. Let me go three rounds with that government, as long as you keep the lumbering Tory beast of bigotry and corporate greed out of the ring. Please, keep it out of the ring, because after ten years of arguing amongst themselves I’m afraid that dissenters on the left may have forgotten what the odds can really be like. I’m afraid we might not be fit enough for the fight that’s coming.

Pennyred is not a Labour blog. Pennyred will never be a Labour blog, and I will never be a Labour party member, but I sure as hell know which bastards I’d rather see royally rogering my country. The bastards with a clue; the bastards who can point to old red firebrands and socialist young bloods peppered here and there in their ranks. The bastards who are willing to revolt against their own government, not once, but continually. The bastards who do not hate the poor, women, ethnic minorities, and everyone who doesn’t look and think just like them. The bastards with just one knarled red toe on the party line.

I’m a little bit tired of listening to liberal, educated, privileged young men and women mutter some feeble sop towards the fucking Iraq war as an excuse for voting Tory, or not voting at all. If that’s you, Londoner or not, then Boris Johnson is your fault. The loss of the Labour heartlands to a clutch of ex-Etonians is your fault. The renaissance of a party that kicked the British working class in the soul in the 1980s, a party that’s already planning to roll back the welfare state and destroy abortion rights when it returns to power, that is your fault. It’s our fault. And we need to raise our game, right now.

We need to step the hell up and decide what we are for, as well as what we’re against. The British left are clever enough and resourceful enough to do that whilst still holding a nominally liberal government to account for its mistakes. Let’s get to it.

Who’s your daddy?

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In the news this week, British jockism scored a smackdown at international sports day in China, with tellies across the country sagging under a brief and terrible invasion of those kids who were popular at school. Oh, and Peaches Geldof got married to her boyfriend of one month. Hold the front page.

Can anybody tell me the point of Peaches Geldof? What is she for, exactly? She seems to dabble in all sorts of things – music, modelling, journalism, presenting – as mere facets of an amorphous party-going social entitlement born of pop-heredity. It troubles me, because I know so many brilliant, truly talented aspiring musicians and artists and writers and models who aren’t making it, who may never make it, not because they aren’t good enough but because they don’t get the breaks, because their daddy isn’t anybody important. Meanwhile, Peaches could fart and SoHo would applaud.

See also, Daisy Lowe. See also, Pixie Geldof. See also, Mark Ronson, Alice Dellal and Alfie Allen. See also, Jaimie Winstone, noted daughter of Ray, who’s currently starring in the 3rd-wave feminist retrospective,‘Donkey Punch’. See also, Coco Sumner, she of the broad shoulders, glossy tawny locks and distracting tartan mini-skirts, noted daughter of Sting. See also, every damn member of the gurning post-adolescent Hanoverian clan, grown up soured by grovelling, fawning, belly-exposing media worship. What the hell happened to meritocracy in this country?

At a recent debate at Portcullis House, David Lammy MP, Minister for Skills, noted the stalling in social mobility that has dogged the UK for the past decade and more. “Class is still very firmly on the agenda,” he said, “and we need to start thinking about what stories we can tell about class, education and social mobility.

“I think it is legitimate for the Labour party to have something to say about excess in the upper eschelons of society. It’s not the politics of envy – it’s the politics of humanity.”

Every morning, I drag myself onto the bus to work or school or my other work and am assaulted by lazy press adoration of a clutch of young people the same age as me and my mates, purely on the basis of their wealth and heredity. Was it really ever thus? The truly fascinating thing about the Geldof, Lowe, Allen and their ilk is that their parents’ generation really were, in many ways, self-made. They came from an era where celebrity actually meant something because it demonstrated that, for example, four young kids from lower-middle-class Liverpool could take on the world and win if they tried. An era where talent and ambition and charisma could win you success no matter who your daddy was. Where you could go to university and work hard and make something of yourself. But a generation later, the snivelling, forelock-tugging British obsession with lineage seems to have reverted to type, and with it, a new acceptance of social class as a measure of worth and entitlement.

Heredity is the rotten trench running through this society, and after barely two generations of social progress we are reverting to type. The sons and daughters of artists, musicians and politicians who made their names the hard way are raised for a life of privilege in which the cringing British press supports them from the moment they’re old enough to be papped. Celebrity used to be aspirational; it used to mean more than who your daddy was. We used to be better than this. Let’s hope we remember it before too long.

Welfare reform: what’s the deal now?

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Ooh, James Purnell. Those kindly eyes, that roguish smile, that cheeky little pro-war voting record. He can call me any time, but meanwhile, guys and gals, let’s satisfy our post-adolescent political lust by calling the Secretary on welfare reform.

The national drive towards reform of the benefits system has been gathering momentum over the past 18 months, with the pace stepping up from January when the Conservative party released ‘Work for Welfare’, a short proposal for some pretty draconian reforms to the current welfare state where all ‘able bodied’ men and women would be expected to work (the fact that one in four claimants of incapacity benefit are severely mentally ill clearly does not register with tory stiff-upper-lippers). Hot on the heels of this report came Purnell’s green paper, the rather more progressively titled ‘No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility.’ Cue a tiresome little inter-party squabble with a lot of bitchy back-handing to the BBC over just whose idea it was to bring the British welfare system into the 21st century.

On first reading, both reports advocate a greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for and ‘earning’ their own benefits; both want to encourage more people into work and provide better checks to do so; both want a clearer distinction between the genuinely needy and those relatively able to work, those whom a medieval government might have called ‘sturdy beggars’. The net effect of the reforms is that in October 2008 a new Employment and Support Allowance will be introduced for new claimants of Incapacity Benefit and other benefits before being rolled out to all recipients.

There, the similarity between the proposals ends. It must be made absolutely clear that Purnell’s green paper treads an extremely fine line between positive reforms that empower people to work and victimisation and further isolation of already poor and vulnerable sections of society. For now, in the months pre-instigation, the proposals come through relatively successfully, with welcome additions such as a long-overdue simplification of the benefits claiming system, making it easier for genuinely needy claimants to access vital support. Until you’ve sat up with a severely physically and emotionally disable friend and watched them crying in frustration as they try to fill out the forms, you may not understand quite how vital this particular change is. The old system was designed to be complex in order to discourage fraudsters from bothering; the new system will build in more proactive checks. And about bloody time too.

The tory proposals, on the other hand, are replete with the rhetoric of disdain for the poor and needy. In the conservative worldview, people need to be stopped at all costs from ‘playing the system’; the government has a ‘moral right’ to ‘protect families’, the practical upshot of which is tax benefits for married couples, as if a silver ring ever solved anything. Quite apart from the fact that Labour’s report is massively longer and more in-depth, quite apart from the fact that it answers the conservative challenge with the diligence of a progressive government purposefully handling the difficulties of practical power, we cannot – simply cannot – have tory hardliners like Chris Grayling in charge of this delicate transitional period in the benefits system.

This welfare reform package is one that can only be successfully implemented by a socially aware, self-policing socialist party of the type that, at its best, Labour tries to be. Conservatives such as Grayling have claimed that Purnell’s proposals are a ‘straight lift’ from tory plans; they are not. If anything, the latest proposals represent a visionary re-working of a policy which, under the Tories, would further criminalise the working classes and drive hundreds of thousands into poverty, debt, addiction and despair.

Because the tories have far less idea even than the incumbent government of what real poverty really means. You can’t say ‘credit crunch’ with out baring your teeth into a snarl, and it’s going for the throat of benefit recipients trying to live on £40 per week. MPs demonstrating ‘belt-tightening’ by not demanding increases on their sixty grand salaries live in an entirely different world from people on JSA and Incapacity Benefit. The welfare state was never designed, as the tories claim, to allow ‘a young man to grow up’ knowing that ‘the state will support him’ whatever choices he makes: if you live on benefits, you are poor. Very poor, and you’ll stay poor unless your circumstances change. A life lived on benefits is a life on the breadline, a life replete with stress and starved of reward and acheivement, a life in many respects half-lived. The vast majority of people on state benefits are keen to return to work – the problem, is that many face tremendous obstacles in obtaining and retaining employment.

The conservatives’ mantra of small government, of decreasing state support in every arena in favour of ‘the family,’ will be massively detrimental to the real good that has been done in moving millions of people off benefits and over the poverty line in the past decade. David Cameron believes that:

‘The primary institution in our lives is the family. It looks after the sick, cares for children and the elderly, supports working people and the unemployed’ –

Woah there. Reading between the lines, doesn’t that mean that families should be doing the work of the state, just like they did in the pre-industrial era? Well, presumably they’re planning to reward domestic work financially, then, aren’t they, and take massive social steps to encourage social cohesiveness within all family structures, and provide equal benefits for civilly-partnered homosexual couples and married straight couples alike? No? Or, just for instance here, could it be another strategy to shove vital care structures such as ‘caring for children and the elderly, supporting working people and the unemployed’ out into the streets in order to save money? We’ve heard this one before. It was called ‘Care in the Community.’

Oh, yes. And tucked away in the pages of ‘Work for Welfare’ are some really juicy howlers, such as:

‘Equal pay audits will apply only to those firms which lose pay discrimination cases’.

Which is a logical and VITAL part of making the welfare state work for everyone, clearly. Only a progressive socialist government has the tenacity and social responsibility to make welfare reform work: we must work now to avoid handing a fledgling system based on ‘rights and responsibilities’ over to the tories, who will never understand in our lifetimes what it really means to be poor, sick and desperate.