Rating: 5 stars
I love Sara Pascoe. I think she’s one of the funniest people working in comedy. I follow her on Twitter. I love her on QI and Frankie Boyle’s New World Order. I’m going to see her live for the first time in October.
I borrowed her book Animal from the library after I saw a quote from it Tweeted by Pascoe, which I’ll talk about later. I thought it was going to be a straightforward memoir of Pascoe’s life and adventures as a funny feminist woman in the male centric world of British comedy. It is, in a way, but it’s also so much more than that.
This is a book that every woman should read, because it explains the evolution of human bodies and the reasons female bodies and male bodies are different, and then it goes further to explain how certain aspects of female bodies have been focused on in unhealthy ways in order to play on female insecurity. I think if all women read Animal, they would be better equipped to deal with the lies and pressure that are thrown at us by the beauty industry, and feel more willing to tell that industry where to go when it has overstepped the mark.
It’s also a book that men should read, but it’s too much to ask of all men, since the majority of the lies women are told about their appearance and physicality stems from the embracing of male attitudes towards women. These attitudes are so ingrained in some men that it feels like too much effort to try to reason with them. I was talking to a man at a party recently who, out of nowhere, felt the need to impress on me (although he wouldn’t make eye contact with me when I spoke, or address his response directly to me, instead choosing to speak at another man who was half in the conversation with us) that transitioning men and women were merely confused and would change their mind about being in the wrong body if they thought about it properly. His refrain throughout the conversation was “You can’t tell me otherwise.” I tried to put a different opinion to him, but it was futile. This sort of man probably wouldn’t read Animal because he knows everything there is to know about other people despite not trying to understand what their daily existence might be like.
Throughout the book, Pascoe tries to understand where the messages women receive about their bodies originate. A significant factor that she identifies in the development of attitudes towards women that frame us as body parts with no consciousness is Victorian patriarchy.
The public construction of sex in Victorian times was that men enjoyed it while women derived their pleasure from conception and pregnancy (lucky us). With this weighted presumption, the results from animal studies met the new theory of evolution and created a model of human sexual behaviour that completely ignored female lust, desire and pleasure as forces that moulded our species. There was no ugly villain masterminding this, no dastardly plot to suppress female sexuality, just some fallible and subjective scientists. If you believe without question that female animals derive no pleasure from mating, that intercourse is something they simply endure to beget children, then you’ll ignore a jungle full of female animals displaying desire and initiating sex. They’ll be invisible, obscured by foliage and preconception. And poor old western civilisation will spend decades entrenched in misunderstanding. We’ll accept that sex is something that happens to women, something which is performed upon us rather than by us. Despite being fifty per cent of the cast we’ll be props rather than actors. And we have been.
… I found the previous paragraph very difficult to write as I kept welling with fury. I wanted to underline things thirty times in red pen, I wanted to hammer it all out in capitals and misspelled swear words. I don’t want to be reasonable, I want to insult those Victorian imbeciles and smack them on the bottom with what they’ve cost us. Modern women have been betrayed by science. We have been lied to and about; they stole our autonomy, they vanished our pleasure and the effects are do embedded, the words of experts so respected that the revolution of reclamation will be slow and difficult.
An extension of this is the portrayal of romance in popular culture and the creation of The One. Pascoe talks about how damaging this is for realistic and successful relationships.
We’re not stupid, are we? We’re astute and self-aware, we know that the men depicted by rom-coms and chick-lit are invented for amusement and dreaminess. But I worry that being bombarded with these fictional men all the time has caused my disappointment with real ones. It’s emotional porn. Even taking good looks and money out of the equation, the men in films and books and television are BRAVE. Even in comedies or when romance is a B-plot, the central male characters are emotionally heroic: they pick one woman who they really like or love and then they risk rejection and humiliation and they don’t give up and they fight for her and become better men for her and – it’s literary Photoshop. No matter what our ideal, fiction feeds it to us and tells us to wait for it. With actual sex pornography, the flip is created. The majority of porn depicts a reality where women are always horny and willing for sex, easily aroused and loud to orgasm from penetration. We should all be fretting about how the repeated consumption of those lies is affecting people, but there is also this other, more common lie being shouted about what we should expect from love. This is the modern world; women lied about by pornography and men lied about everywhere else.
An outcome of the lies about the female body embodied in porn is the feeling many women have that they need bigger boobs to be happy and to make the man in their life happy. As a woman with a genetic predisposition to large boobs, I can honestly say that they’re not all that. They’re heavy, cause backache with the wrong bra, require bras that cost three times as much as regular sized bras, make exercise difficult without an expensive sports bra, get in the way while sleeping, and attract the gaze and often the comments of strangers (not just male strangers, either). As much as any woman who is an A, B or C cup might want larger boobs, most women who are a natural E, F or G cup wish they were smaller. But we are the way our genes code us to be, and I agree with Pascoe that routine cosmetic surgery is a fucked up way of dealing with it.
For our pre-civilised ancestors, the exposed breasts of a woman would have been a quick and easy way of assessing exactly where she was in her life. Uncovered and unbra-ed they announce a history of our body, our nutrition and our fertility. Perhaps that’s why we’re so sensitive to what our breasts say about us. That’s why we want them to fib, to tell a better story. We want them to tell everyone we’re younger and fitter than we are. We want to be well represented – and that leads us to disguise and adapt our breasts, to lift them, pad them and alter the shape of our silhouette. Or have surgery and amend them permanently.
Obviously some women have breast surgery because they have suffered cancer or pain and some women need reconstruction to their breasts after illness or dysfunction. But other women, physically healthy women, choose to have their breasts operated on because they don’t like the way they look. When these operations first became widely available, in the 1990s, over ninety per cent of women who requested them were recorded as having ‘psychological difficulties’ or ‘psychiatric issues’. That’s because back then, wanting to be sliced open to have a globule of plastic or saline shoved inside was absolute madness. But the odd thing is that the statistic is now inverted, and over ninety per cent of people who want boob jobs are recorded as being entirely sane, because who wouldn’t want to improve their rubbish tits when there are options available? When something’s common enough it can’t be mad any more; we just upgrade our definition of sanity to include unnecessary and painful surgical procedures.
She goes on to talk about how she doesn’t understand why more women don’t feel furious when the prevailing culture has made her feel that her body was insufficient. She also refers to the way implants aren’t tested as rigorously as medication, and women undergoing plastic surgery are part of an on-going study of implants.
… lots of studies are conducted using their data – health complications afterwards, further cosmetic procedures, etc. And a meta-analysis of all these studies found that women who’ve had breast enlargements are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t. We need to think about that. About why this is happening, about the vulnerabilities of the women who choose cosmetic surgery and the normalisation of such choices. When they asked cosmetic surgeons about this rise in suicides they didn’t understand: ‘they were happy with their operations,’ they said; ‘she didn’t show signs of depression.’ But someone who wants to have their body cut open, to pay for it, is already self-harming. Carving criticism on their body. The expense and clever doctors persuading us surgery is more reasonable than razor work in your own bathroom. Psychologists are now paying attention to this suicide increase, asking whether it could be a result of surgery or a predisposition in those who seek it. But the whole thing feels too casual to me. I wonder if a pill or tablet that made you three times more likely to kill yourself would get approval from government departments?
From the way the female form looks and has been objectified, to the way women are treated as though they don’t have autonomy over their own bodies, Pascoe has started with her own body, researched to understand what the scientific truth is, and then presented her findings in a way that makes a lot of sense. And she does it with humour. This isn’t a dry text, it’s an honestly human one. It reads like a conversation with a friend.
When the historic vote to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution Act happened, Pascoe Tweeted a page from Animal where she discussed meeting an Irish woman at an abortion clinic and being astounded that someone from a country and culture so similar to her own was not legally allowed to have an abortion in her own country. The words Pascoe used were
Hippocrates himself recommended an abortion method of ‘kicking yourself on the buttocks until the seed fell out.’ If only that worked – any Irish girl in trouble could Riverdance herself out of it. I hope the law in Ireland has changed by the time this book is published so it’s me that seems outdated rather than their legal system.
I liked her take on the rights of the unborn foetus versus the rights of the pregnant woman.
When we discuss the rights of the unborn, we’re thinking about non-conscious, non-sentient beings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have rights. I do believe that unborn foetuses have rights, and they should not have to wait until birth to be accorded the respect we endow on the living; believing a woman is entitled to choose to abort a pregnancy doesn’t mean the rights of foetuses are dismissed and disregarded. It means there is a hierarchy. It means that I believe the rights of the woman who is pregnant take precedence. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is sad, it doesn’t mean you are not allowed to be outraged and upset by it. Sometimes in pro-choice arguments we can get stuck in defending what seem to be morally stronger arguments: pregnancies that have resulted from rape, children who are impregnated by their abusers, women who may die if their pregnancies continue. These examples may help soften some pro-lifers, or help them empathise with the complexity of some women’s experience and choices. But I am going to stand, hands on hips, and tell you that a woman like myself – healthy, wealthy and with love in my life – if I am pregnant and don’t want to be, it’s top trumps and I win. It’s harsh and horrible that a possible person can be unexisted and it might make you want to cry, but if you want fewer abortions then you should devote yourself to helping women who don’t want to be pregnant not get pregnant, not terrifying and humiliating the ones who are.
Pascoe has things to say about how even women who do want to get pregnant have their choices taken from them. From being an entirely female community affair, high mortality rates of mothers and babies and the advance of science, dominated as it was by men, led to midwives being all but banished from the birthing process and men taking control. Some men developed an interest in the disfigurements that can happen as a result of childbirth. The 19th century American doctor, Marion Sims, decided that he was going to experiment on slave women to try to understand and find a treatment for fistulas. I’m not quoting from this section of the book, it’s graphic and upsetting. It’s an example of black women being seen as animals and used to find a cure that only benefitted wealthy white women. It’s a medical breakthrough that still benefits wealthy women. Women in developing countries still suffer the effects of obstetric tearing, the World Health Organisation estimates two million women worldwide go untreated, 5% end up with fistulas.
Then there was Dr Grantly Dick-Read, a doctor in the 1950s who decided that, because no other animal makes a fuss while delivering their young, the female human animal must be imagining their pain. I remember my mum saying that when my sister was born in the late 1950s, she was told by the doctor not to make a fuss. She had both my brother and me at home, attended by the local midwife.
There’s an entire chapter on the way menstruation has been turned into something shameful and dirty by patriarchal societies. We’re not supposed to mention it. Adverts for sanitary products use blue fluid to represent menstrual blood. If my period involved a nice thin stream of blue fluid more like urine than the clots of endometrial wall and blood from ruptured capillaries that are actually passing from my womb, I’d be happier. Although, if I became pregnant and windolene was involved in supporting my unborn child in the womb, I would be worried. There is still a belief that women are untouchable and witch like while we’re menstruating. I can’t quote an entire chapter, but I want to.
The chapter devoted to female genitals is my favourite. This is the chapter that I do think all men should read, as well as all women. I did A level Biology, I know a fair amount about the female reproductive system. I also have the same thing that Pascoe has, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and have read up over the years on what that means for me. I still learned stuff I didn’t know, because it’s thirty years since I did my A levels and scientific research is always uncovering new facts. And Pascoe presents the facts that she has read up on in a way that’s easy to take in and she links those facts to her own experience so that I understood my own experience more directly. She talks about the bullshit peddled about ‘feminine hygiene’, including the sprays, wipes and fragranced panty liners that disguise the natural smell of our genitals (a smell you can only detect if you get your nose right in there or if there’s something affecting the health of your genitals), the kits that help women make their labia a more acceptable colour (acceptable to whom?), Gwyneth Paltrow’s advocacy for vaginal steaming to balance your hormones (Gwyneth needs to go back to school and study some Biology).
Moving away from genitals to cosmetics generally, Pascoe expresses something that I have struggled to articulate in the past. I have friends who LOVE make up. I like makeup, but it’s not a big thing for me. I’ll even myself out to enhance my appearance if I want to, but equally I’ll go out with very little or no makeup on at all. It doesn’t matter. I look the way I look and if I’m happy with that, then that’s what matters. But I also feel uneasy when I read opinion pieces, or reactions like the one I saw on Twitter when the musician Aidan Moffat expressed reservations about his four year old daughter wanting to wear makeup and women leapt on him as though he’d said women should never wear makeup. He admitted that he’d been drunk when he first Tweeted and perhaps hadn’t phrased his apprehension well, but he kept trying to have a discussion with the defensive women who didn’t want a conversation with him, they just wanted to vent their frustration with being told what they should and shouldn’t do as women in order to gain male approval. This paragraph in Animal struck me as very sensible.
Let’s just remember that cosmetics of all varieties – whether for your face or your fanny – are never providing a service you need. They are always, in their advertising and in their very existence, telling you that something is wrong with you. The entire ‘beauty industry’ is the financial exploitation of people’s inbuilt, animal insecurity. Wanting to be attractive is not new, it’s just that fashions change. The Victorians had bustles and corsets, we have boob jobs and lighten our bald pudenda. We’re all mad, but it’s been this way for ages.
And then she heads back to the genitals and the surgical procedures women undergo that cut and reshape the labia, or cut and stitch the vagina. Pascoe likens it to FGM. All women, she says, are subject to the same pressures to be attractive and sexual in the right way.
Everything boils down to the prevailing culture telling us that women need to remain youthful and virginal in appearance and feel so that men will want to penetrate us and enjoy it while they do it. That’s why we need to shave, tuck, enhance, bleach and resculpt our bodies. Our natural form is supposedly a turn off.
The penultimate chapter is an examination of rape and what is often termed ‘rape culture’ in the media. Again, Pascoe takes a balanced approach to a subject that clearly angers her, so that her anger is controlled, persuasive not alienating. I recently read Meena Kandasamy‘s fictionalised account of her abusive marriage, so what Pascoe says about the history of marital rape in the UK and the position on marital rape in other countries made for interesting reading.
The issue of consent is rooted in British law, with marriage considered to be an agreement to unlimited consent on the part of the woman. Rape within marriage didn’t legally exist until a piece of 1991 case law overturned legislation set down in 1736 that conjugal rights, the ownership of women by their husbands, meant that husbands can’t rape their wives. Two hundred and forty years later, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act made statutory the definition of rape as forced sex outside of marriage. A ruling in 1984 said that, because wives regularly had consensual sex with their husbands, sex without consent within marriage was not grave or peculiar enough to be rape. It took another seven years of women fighting for their right to say no to their husbands before rape within marriage was recognised. 1991 is less than thirty years ago.
As Pascoe points out, the fact that these changes are so recent indicates that this is just the start of the process. She puts it like this:
I believe bodily autonomy is an obvious and basic human right but our country and courts are governed by people older than me, who grew up in a culture where men did effectively own women, and this has ramifications. Shifts in attitudes percolate through the populace slowly, at glacial speed, and the result is that many of us hold different beliefs all at the same time.
… We all invent [morality] for ourselves depending on our experiences. The problems begin when we believe our personal moral code can be applied to all other people.
This made me think about Germaine Greer’s recent expression of her opinions on rape and how it should be prosecuted. Greer is of an older generation, she brings with her cultural attitudes from the 1940s and 1950s. Not even being at the forefront of second wave feminism can rid her of attitudes that would have been demonstrated to her daily growing up. As a third wave feminist, I grew up with Greer, Angela Carter, Gloria Steinem in the background, but my leading lights were Kathleen Hannah, Liz Phair, Naomi Klein. The unwillingness of Greer to look beyond her own beliefs and work with younger women had already started to rankle, and it doesn’t take much to imagine how much of a disconnect there is between her views and those of today’s fourth wave feminists.
In the two years since the book came out, women have become increasingly vocal about the way society views us. Erin Keane, a writer for Salon.com, recently tweeted about this. So did screenwriter and playwright Lucy Prebble.
What Pascoe goes on to say about intimate rape, which marital rape comes within the scope of, and the misunderstanding that it is less harrowing than stranger rape, reminded me of the current storyline for Dr Alicia Munroe, one of the characters in Casualty. She goes home with one of her colleagues after a night out. Her backstory is that she’s not coping with the end of a previous relationship and the stress of working in A&E and is using alcohol as a painkiller. When she wakes the next day, she realises that she and the colleague had sex but she didn’t give her consent. It’s a storyline that echoes the accusations against Julian Assange and the prosecution of footballer Ched Evans. Consensual sex on one occasion doesn’t make unwanted sex bearable or acceptable. Women are allowed to change their minds, even in the moment, and if they are forced to continue, Pascoe says, it’s akin to being drowned.
Drowning isn’t easier because you’re usually a good swimmer. That flailing loss of control, desperate for air, is a good analogy for this, because the panic is similar.
My final quote from the book is about how sexuality is taught to boys and girls.
… lurking underneath sex crimes is the enduring, subconscious belief that women’s bodies exist for male procreation and pleasure. That they are never really ours, despite what we’re told. And we are told nowadays – it’s a huge part of feminism. We tell each other. My mother told me, as did books and magazines and teen television. Like a mantra: My body is my own. MY genitals, MY reproductive rights and MY pleasure, all mine.
But did anyone tell the boys? Were they repeating ‘their bodies, their genitals, their reproductive rights and their pleasure’ throughout their adolescence? … throughout modern history male sexuality has been celebrated and accepted while female desire has been denied and suppressed. Consequently male sexuality is perceived as instinctual, natural, something outside of their control. … Defecation is as strong an urge as ejaculation, yet society has taught humans of all genders to be fiercely private and respectful about this and not plop it all about like horses. Sane men do not lose control and begin masturbating in front of everybody at the party; they remain aware of right and wrong, of embarrassment and propriety, even when intoxicated. Respect for women’s bodies, whether they be asleep, or naked or drugged, should be learned like toilet training.
This call for respect for the female body to be taught to boys leads into the final chapter, which is on the age of consent and covers all manner of topics from the attitude in Western society that it’s okay for adult men to catcall adolescent girls without them being paedophiles to other societies that believe it’s acceptable for adult men to marry and have sex with girls as young as eight years old. It makes for difficult but necessary reading.
At the end of the book, Pascoe provides a list of charities that support women around the world, and a reading list for anyone who wants to find out more for themselves.
This really is a great book. Pascoe talks such a lot of sense.