Speaking of International Women’s Day…

Caravaggio - Medusa

This will be a very short blog: it would have been a tweet if I could have boiled it down to 140 characters.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I would like to make a point about language. Specifically, I have found much of the commentary around Vicky Pryce’s trial rather depressing. I know Vicky a little bit – and I don’t want to make any comment about the facts of the case or the verdict. But I do want to say something about the way it has been discussed.

Apparently it is impossible for journalists – and others – to make comment without drawing on the traditional ‘angry woman’ tropes. And since Vicky happens to be Greek, it has been even easier to lazily call on such classical references as ‘Fury’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Medea’, ‘Harridan’, ‘Harpie’, etc.

This is annoying for two reasons. One: stereotypes are rarely helpful or sophisticated. They are reductive and serve only to simplify the discourse, rather than enlighten it. Cases and people get shoehorned into the familiar rather than understood on their own terms.

Two: the particular stereotypes mentioned above have been long-standing tools for the demonisation of femininity and thus, ultimately, the repression of women. It is depressing that we still cannot seem to shake them. Even more depressing when the journalist exploiting them happens to be a woman.

I know that there are women around the world suffering far greater wrongdoing than this bit of labelling – it’s easy to write off as a case of ‘#firstworldproblem’. But the two ends of the spectrum are utterly related, and one of the things that unites them is language.

Language matters: it is subtle and pervasive. It shapes how people think. And too many people are careless with it.

A taste for old stuff

Stools by Artek 2ndCycle
At a recent work event – a seminar on the industry growing up around recycling – I found my mind wandering back to a book I read at University, called ‘In Praise of Shadows’. It’s a short but compelling essay, by a Japanese writer, lamenting the disappearing aesthetic sensibility of old Japan with the invasion of western-style capitalism in the early 20th century. He writes beautifully about the particular qualities of architecture, objects, art – and women – that used to be the ideal.

He characterises the difference between the aesthetic of Old Japan, and new Westernised Japan, as a penchant for craftsmanship, maturity, and the effect of shadow, as opposed to mass manufacture, novelty and light. In the old world, material objects and surfaces that had been allowed to age, that had acquired a patina – where years of use and the marks of hands were visible – were the things that were valued. Whilst some of his descriptions seem grotesque – a description of a bony geisha with blackened teeth sticks in the mind – the book is a valuable read for calling into question the ubiquity and subjectivity of western ideals of beauty.

But what has this got to do with recycling?

I was dismayed to learn in the course of the seminar that something like 48% of plastic bottles still end up in landfill. This can’t possibly be because we don’t possess the technological capability to recycle all plastic bottles. Of course it’s partly a question of systems, and the will of manufacturers to reclaim materials. But this is slowly changing. Greater attention is now being drawn to the issue of waste because of the economic impact of throwing so much stuff away. Not only is it a long term environmental hazard, it is a criminal waste of material resources. Raw materials are getting more expensive; and China owns too large a proportion of rare earth material sources for comfort. 80% of manufacturers said that materials shortage was a risk to their business in 2012. So material recovery from waste is becoming an increasingly lucrative business; and condemning perfectly decent stuff to landfill no longer makes good business sense. For its own part, government is now plowing investment into research and innovation that will lead us towards the holy grail ‘circular economy’.

The trickier challenge is persuading the consumer to do the right thing with their rubbish. Or, to not create so much in the first place. Part of the problem, the source of our buy-use-dispose habit, is our love of new things, our susceptibility to fashion, and the need to discard the old that this induces. What is important about ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is the suggestion that this ‘neophilia’ is not innate, rather a product of capitalism.

Obviously, it is convenient in a capitalist economy for consumers to want to buy all the time. The cycles of fashion grease the wheels of the economy. What is interesting is the degree to which our tastes – aesthetically and emotionally – have been tailored to suit the needs to the market. You can see this clearly being set in train in the nineteenth century, when women in particular were actively urged to decorate their homes in the latest mode, tricked into thinking it was a sign of patriotism, or of their own creative expression. This has been the subject of recent TV series based on Zola’s ‘Ladies Paradise’ and on the early days of Selfridge’s, where shoppers are subtly emotionally manipulated to serve commercial imperatives. The persona and treatment of the female consumer can be clearly traced from these pioneering days to the present. Little has changed.

For a long time now men and women have been programmed to constantly consume. Our social status and success is determined by our material possessions, and often by the degree to which they conform to ever changing fashions. You can’t keep up with the Jones’s if you don’t keep shopping, and you can’t fit more things in your house unless you throw some other things away. Thus rampant consumerism generates waste.

The design industry, for all its virtues, is a servant of this machine, invented to tap the ambitions, hopes, desires of consumers, and to persuade them to buy when there is no real material need. Take the example of chairs. We should really stop designing new chairs. We already have plenty, and there must be a style out there for everyone by now. No one needs to design any more chairs, and yet at design fairs every year, dozens of new chairs are ‘released’ on to the market. And, if they are popular enough, they make designers and manufacturers pots of money.

The problem now is capitalism has eaten itself. It’s running out of its own fuel. The neverending supply of consumer goods may be threatened as material resources become exhausted, but we all still want to buy new things. So what do we do? How do we persuade people to buy quality and buy once? Can we make design for longevity fashionable again? Can we replace neophilia with nostalgia?

I don’t believe we are a completely lost cause. This idea – of objects accruing value as they age – already exists in pockets. One can pay a fortune for antiques. The vogue for vintage seems to be enjoying unprecedented popularity at the moment, spearheaded by designer Wayne Hemingway. A few manufacturers are capitalizing on this: Artek, a Danish furniture company, have just started a new line of business, 2nd Cycle, reselling old models of their own pieces. And this imperative can make a difference to how we design in the first place. Students at Brighton University are developing products that incite a greater emotional attachment from the owner – for example, a teacup whose pattern emerges over long months of use.

But these are all niche markets, when what we need is a mass movement. It’s a tricky question: after years of being persuaded to value novelty, how long will it take us to learn to love old things again?

A Manly Pursuit


For a large chunk of the 20th century, the architecture world was dominated, stylistically and intellectually, by a small and highly eccentric coterie of over-educated men, all of whom believed in the universal ‘truth’ of the ‘international style’: plain walls, strip windows, flat roofs, no ornament or colour, ‘honest’ materials, and columns only as long as you call them ‘pilotis’.

These advocates of no-frills architecture were endlessly searching for a style that embodied the spirit of the times, and the ‘international style’ was their answer. It lived up to its name in adoption: the blank, glass-walled office buildings of every contemporary city are its descendants. But there was nothing universal about its origins. Really it was the result of late 19th and early 20th century mid-European academicism, cooked up by artists and intellectuals not known for their in-touch-with-the-people character. This cohort have been mercilessly roasted by Tom Wolfe in his book ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’, which I now wish I had read while I was still an architecture student.

How they came to this position is a fascinating social question. Here I am going to discuss one intriguing and little discussed angle to the conception of modernism: the story of how feminism unwittingly shaped the course of 20th century architecture, and arguably for the worse.

Vienna, at the turn of the last century, was a fulcrum of sorts for the transition of culture, learning and politics from 19th to 20th centuries. So many things that either flourished or deteriorated thereafter – music, art, psychology, science, architecture, racism, a struggling artist called Adolf Hitler – had their roots in Vienna at this time.

So too did the modern feminist movement. Women began to demand education, access to the universities and professions, and to seriously challenge the dogma that prevailed about what women were and were not capable of. The most impressively progressive of these is an intellectual called Rosa Mayreder, who argued that in terms of brain capacity, there need be little difference between the sexes beyond what culture and training dictates.

For every embryo feminist there were of course others who believed in, and made attempts to scientifically prove, the intellectual and physical inferiority of women. One particularly revealing example is a young academic called Otto Weininger, who wrote a thesis featuring such pearls as (to paraphrase): ‘women have no thoughts, only bundles of emotion’, ‘only men are capable of genius’ and ‘Jews and homosexuals are men who have too much of the feminine element in them’. Anything that he disliked he attributed to femininity, and his goal seems to have been to draw a line around intellectualism as the preserve of heterosexual Gentile men only. (Unfortunately, being both gay and Jewish, his internal struggle overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide shortly after publishing.)

Weininger is rather extreme, but his thesis was received and read with interest. His views were not that radical. The respect he was dealt implies that other men felt a similar growing paranoia about the encroachment of women on domains that were traditionally reserved for men: particularly the professions. After all, as we would now recognise, there is no reason why men, whilst they may make better builders and soldiers, should make better doctors and lawyers – or architects – and growing numbers of women were beginning to see this.

This male insecurity led to numerous attempts to pin down the ‘nature of woman’, which, due to the complex nature of male-female relationships in fin-de-siecle Vienna, wasn’t easy. Nowhere have brothels and venereal disease doctors been more prevalent. Boys were encouraged to lose their virginity to an unsuspecting household maid or country girl (a susse Madel), or a prostitute, but these things were rarely discussed. Meanwhile the girls they were expected to marry had to be whiter-than-white. Mahler famously drove his pretty young wife to adultery for his refusal to touch her in the bedroom, although he wrote some of his most moving music for her. Klimt indulged in most of his models, but kept up an asexual liaison with a society lady all his life. Wives, sisters and daughters were attributed with all sorts of virtues they could never have lived up to, and prostitutes were both despised as harpies and visited regularly.

These contradictory circumstances led a sense of male bafflement regarding, which in turn led to numerous pseudo-scientific explanations for phenomena that were largely cultural. Such accounts rarely agreed, dividing broadly along the typical ‘women are naturally virtous/ women are naturally immoral’ lines, leading to further confusion. (The obsession with classifying was also applied to Jews, but that is another story.)

Man, on the other hand, needed no explanation. The nature of the male character was clear: virile, brave, honest, compassionate, rational, capable of great intellect and frequently genius.

Naturally, this atmosphere seeped into cultural theory in other areas, and cross-pollination in Vienna was de rigueur, ideas and theories melding in the fertile environment of the cafes. And so it found its way into architecture. Adolf Loos (pictured above), architect, cultural theorist and commentator, published prolifically on questions of style, design, taste and art. His greatest influence in the field of architecture derives from a short polemical essay on ‘ornament and crime’. This describes the practice of decorating buildings, commonplace in most pre-20th century architecture the world over, as primitive, degenerate, and wasteful. It was typical early modernist arrogance: dismissing hundreds of years of tradition and art in one short essay. He likened unnecessary ornamentation to the tribal practice of tattooing the body, and proposed that a culturally sophisticated society must do away with decorating its buildings. Finally, ornamentation was, according to Loos, who also had thoughts on fashion, a distinctly feminine practice. And what better way to encourage male architects to adopt his own predilection for blank walls, than to liken decoration to two commonly despised concepts: primitivism and femininity.

He wasn’t the first to equate frivolity in architecture with femininity. Earlier in the 19th century, the French Viollet-le-Duc claimed that architecture needed to do away with ‘the caprices of that fantastical queen we call fashion’. But it was after Loos that the no-ornamentation idea really caught on, picked up by influential theorists and made famous through their own maxims, Louis Sullivan most memorably with ‘form ever follows function’. Sullivan also said, although less frequently quoted: ‘feminine qualities are inappropriate to public buildings.’

The most influential manifesto to develop Loos’s idea was Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’, in which the claims for the masculinity of good architecture leap off the page. For example:

‘Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’. The styles of Louis XIV, xv, xvi or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman’s head; it is sometimes pretty, though not always, and never anything more. Architecture has a graver end; capable of the sublime, it impresses the most brutal instincts by its objectivity; it calls into play the highest faculties by its very abstraction.’

‘Men – intelligent, cold and calm – are needed to build the house and lay out the town.’

‘Architecture is the first manifestation of man creating his own universe…’

The result of this theorising was that the most admirable of supposedly ‘male’ qualities – rationality, reason, order – became synonymous with prescriptions for ‘good’ modernist architecture: spare, box-like, and obsessed with the possibilities of the ‘machine age’. Le Corbusier undoubtedly did build some remarkable buildings, and there are many other modernist works of great elegance and beauty. But whether Corbusier’s own architecture truly aligned with his theories is debatable, and in less talented hands, these theories have also produced some spectacularly ugly and alienating places. Our towns and cities are riddled with them.

My own theory is that the restating of architectural theory that happened in the early 20th century was inextricably bound up with desperate attempts to preserve the domain of masculinity. Women, who were viewed with suspicion already, were doing alarming things, invading territories (professions) that had previously been reassuringly male. Architectural discourse thus became a conversation conducted between Men, about things that Men do, in a very Manly way: enough of this frivolous decoration, we need steel and glass and no compromising.

It is unfortunate for those of us who now have to live with the bleak consequences, that this idiosyncratic position has held such sway. The late 19th century terror of the unknown feminine, and the corresponding despise of ornamentation, has led to the impoverishment of 20th century architecture.

No aspiration without inspiration: women, boardrooms & fiction

Over the course of a few days in January there was something of a Nordic-themed media flurry. David Cameron invited some of his Nordic counterparts to a summit in London, before flying out to participate himself in the Nordic Futures Forum. Top of the bill in those discussions (apart from ‘how to steer an economy safely through a recession’, and ‘how to run an efficient and trusted welfare state’) was the question of how to get more women into the workplace and boardrooms.

Norway seems to be taking the hardest line on this, having already introduced enforceable quotas. But this is a treating-symptoms-rather-than-cause measure, and the causes are, at present, poorly understood. Given how keen he seems to learn, Cameron might heed the significance of the appearance of a certain freckle-faced red-haired girl in the debate. Pippi Longstocking – a staple character in Swedish childhood – cropped up in a paper presented at Davos, entitled ‘Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State’.

The ‘Pippi’ analogy in that case was about a particular conceptual balance between individual, family, and state. Quoting from the paper:

Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society.

Underpinning these politics is a particular notion of social relations:

Authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.

Whilst there is a clear role for the state (enabling as many people as possible to be economic producers), there is also a heavy emphasis on personal capacities and behaviour (taking the initiative). For those familiar with Astrid Lindgren’s books, it should be clear that Pippi is a trope of such independence and individualism. She is also – and this is the key – a hugely engaging and inspiring fictional character.

For those not well acquainted, a quick resume: she lived in a tree-house and held decadent tea parties; she had an assorted band of animals as companions – including a monkey in a little red jacket, and an old horse; her absentee father was a pirate who occasionally dropped off a few bags of gold; she had a wonderfully eclectic wardrobe, including the impractically long socks for which she is named; she was freakishly strong, could walk up walls (with the aid of some special glue), turned washing the floor into a domestic alternative to rollerskating, and was forever saving the day. She is every child’s dream of parent-free, unsupervised adventure and fun. As many children have, I loved her.

I can see now that she is something of a feminist icon. But at the age of 7, I wanted to be like Pippi not because I was self-consciously a feminist, rather because she did heroic things, had a good time, and was unquestioningly the author of her own destiny. I wanted to be like her, and emulated her accordingly, pigtails and all. I’ve lost the pigtails now, but a certain strong-willed-ness has remained with me into adulthood.

Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end. It troubles me, therefore, that I can’t think of many grown-up (female) characters who are exciting in the same way as young Pippi. I am no longer so enamoured of the tea-parties-in-trees lifestyle, and I am missing a replacement.

In fact, I am burgeoning on despair at the utter lack of equivalent heroines in adult fiction. What happens to Pippi and her peers when they hit puberty? Too often, as soon as girls are old enough to fall in love, the pursuit of said state invariably becomes the story. Other things might happen along the way, but bagging a man is the ultimate goal. (The reverse is rarely true for male characters in fiction. James Bond normally bags a woman – or rather several – as a sideshow to a much grander story.)

The sad thing is I’m not sure James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw are accurate reflections of how much men and women care about love and relationships as opposed to the other things in their lives. I’m not sure it’s naturally the case that women are more prone to fixating on men than the other way around. But it does feel as though there are legions of chick lit heroines – and their romcom film equivalents – who can seem to find nothing else to talk about. ‘Sex and the City’, for all it apparently achieved in terms of un-demonising female promiscuity, did nothing to reassure women that their primary focus needn’t be men. (It also seems to condone some pretty flighty behaviour.)

A little more often I would like to read a story, or see a film, where the protagonist was an interesting woman, doing exciting things, and where her lovelife wasn’t foregrounded as the premiere plot feature. I’m looking for a grown-up Pippi. Yes, there are a few. But there will have to be a lot more in order to combat the avalanche of low-grade cultural output – books, films, TV, adverts, music videos, fashion – which tells British women that their sexuality is their personality, and their identity is contingent on men.

To return to the starting point, to the question of why there aren’t more women in UK boardrooms: it is about inclination – and inspiration – as much as possibility. The door may be open, but women have to aspire to walk through it. And what will prompt them to ‘aspire’ is more complex than, for example, a more generous stance on paternity leave. The answer must, at least partly, be in presenting women with some more varied and inspiring options in the popular forms we daily consume.

Happy International Women’s Day.