Saturday, 24 March 2012

Musings on 'Scott and Bailey'

I so enjoyed writing about gender in Dirk Gently that I thought I'd have a go at ITV's Scott and Bailey too. This will be slightly different, since a whole series has already aired, and although I know I had a lot of thoughts about it at the time, I can't remember too many details! I've watched the last three on ITV Player to remind myself, but unfortunately missed the first three, so I missed my most growled-at storyline, in which one of the title characters accidentally gets pregnant, schedules an abortion, can't go through with it, and then conveniently miscarries so that she doesn't have the inconvenience of pregnancy/parenthood, but doesn't have to make any evil baby-killing decisions. I saw it coming, of course, but I still snarled a lot.

There's a whole lot of gender stuff going on in Scott and Bailey. The three main characters are women, almost the entire creative team are women, and the whole idea for the programme was conceived by women. This is obviously good news for us women-friendly folks - we (ok, I) like things that have a lot of women involved in them. On the other hand, it does heighten the stakes for Scott and Bailey to be "feminist". We (ok, I) want to see a woman-heavy show with 'good representations' of women; I want to see lots of women in lots of different roles, with lots of different skills/characteristics/flaws/voices etc. I don't want to see six different stereotypes of women, although that would certainly be an improvement on the two different stereotypes of women that you get in much mainstream media.

Thankfully, Scott and Bailey doesn't fall into this trap (I suspect the woman-heavy creative team may have had something to do with this). The two title characters, Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey, are very different women. Neither are perfect, which is a good start. Janet Scott is 'older', married with kids, a fixture in the MIT in which they both work. She is stolid, calm, dependable and determined. Rachel Bailey is 'younger', a new addition to the team. She is called "Sherlock" by the rest of the team, due to her intuitive style of detective work, and she is often talked up as being brilliant. She is also flighty and impatient, and given to making questionable choices about both her personal and her professional life. The third main character is DCI Gill Murray, a fast-talking, no-nonsense boss who demands the highest level of achievement from her team.

These characters form the backbone of the programme, and they are constantly interacting with each other about their professional and personal lives. Both Murray and Scott act as 'mentors' to Bailey in different ways, with Scott keeping Bailey on the "more traditional" lines of investigation whilst also giving her space to let her personal detecting style blossom, and Murray giving Bailey multiple opportunities to experience different sides of police work within the team, often talking her through new things. This is one facet of the show that I like very much. It's great to see the different levels of knowledge being treated as significant but not laughable - Bailey is not a silly kid, but she has less experience than the other two and they are keen to help her progress as a detective, encouraging her development and being patient with her inexperience. They recognise her potential and want to enhance it, even when her inexperience and impatience leads her down the wrong paths. The three women are supportive of each other both professionally and personally - there is little evidence of the jealousy, competitiveness and cattiness that is the mainstay of many TV relationships between women.

The personal storylines of the women are interesting. Janet's marriage and potential affair form the main drive of her personal plot, whilst for Rachel it is her relationship with a man who, unknown to her, has a wife and children living elsewhere. Gill Murray's storyline is less prominent, but what there is of it is centres around her life as a single mother of a teenage son. Rachel also has that unintended pregnancy to contend with. One part of me is disappointed that these plot-lines are so dependent on the womanhood of the characters. Having female protagonists be driven by their relationship- (and (potential) parenting-) concerns is not exactly ground-breaking. On the other hand, the programme is mainly about their detective work, where they are Scott and Bailey rather than Janet and Rachel after all, so I think I give this a pass. Being concerned about their relationships alongside their jobs is progressive, in comparison with so many portrayals of women on TV, who are only concerned about their relationships, or who exist as extensions of the male protagonists (who are usually concerned about their jobs). On the other hand, perhaps it is telling that so much of this programme, which is titled Scott and Bailey, is devoted to the personal lives of Janet and Rachel. The last episode of the first series, for example, is barely about solving the 'main crime' of the episode at all - their only witness gives it up in his second interview after cursory questioning by Scott. The meat of the episode is concerned with Rachel's entanglement with slimy barrister Nick Savage (about whom more in a moment).

On the other side of binary gender representation, the treatment of recurring male characters on the show is somewhat less progressive. Nick Savage is probably the biggest male role, and he is essentially a villain. After a 2-year relationship with Rachel, it is revealed in the first episode that he is married with children. When she later discovers that he had an affair with a jury member whilst defending a client in court, he threatens her with the retribution of the client that he successfully defended if she gives him away, and in the final episode is charged with Rachel's attempted murder. Nick Savage (whose name is obviously significant) starts off suave and manipulative and ends up vicious and murderous. Not exactly a fully realised character. DC Kevin Lumb (whose name also seems significant) is a bit of a buffoon - he is sexist, arrogant, lazy and seems to exist as an 'intelligence' comparison to Bailey (at one point, Murray says to Bailey "you're not Kevin" (Series 1, episode 4)). DS Andy Roper, who is in love with Scott, is really nothing but a means of character-development for Scott - after their one-night-stand prior to the shows beginning, he tries to persuade her to leave her husband, prompting her to reevaluate her relationship and her priorities. Ade is Janet's patient, loyal husband, and DCS Dave Murray, Gill Murray's ex-husband, had a string of affairs and left her when he "got a 23-year-old uniform pregnant" (Series 1, episode 5). His biggest scene so far is when he suggests to Gill that she shouldn't be "taking up with another man" right in the middle of their son's A-levels (Series 1, episode 6):

Dave: It's Sammy. It's fine, it's his A-levels. I don't want you to take this the wrong way. Don't you think - right in the middle of his exams - is the wrong time for you to be taking up with another man?
Gill: How dare you? After all the turmoil and upheaval and disruption you caused that boy? How dare you.
Dave: He's not happy.
Gill: That's rubbish. This is about you, not him. Despite the fact you walked out on me and him, despite the fact you were at it with all and sundry for God knows how long, you can't stand the idea I could possibly get into bed with someone else, can you? Hypocrite.
Dave: I knew you'd take it the wrong way.
Gill: (walking away) On your bike, mush.
Dave: I've told him if he wants to move in with me and Emma for a little while he's more than welcome. He seemed quite keen.
Gill: How've you managed that then? Promised to buy him a car? 
(he makes a face)
Gill: No - Dave - you can't do that, I told him I would buy him a car when he got his A-level results, if they were good enough, so you'd better retract that promise.
Dave: I'm not retracting a thing.
Gill: You fucking arsehole.
(he nods)
Dave: Cheerio.

Dave is clearly the bad guy here - we're not asked to sympathise with his (entirely unreasonable) behaviour, and Gill is set up as the victim. What's interesting to me about this exchange is the way the characters say the things they say. Gill's words are the ones we are to agree with, and Dave's words are not. But Gill raises her voice, she swears at him, she gets passionate. She shows emotion. Dave, on the other hand, speaks quietly and calmly, and doesn't respond to Gill's emotion. When she calls him a "fucking arsehole" he just nods slightly, says "cheerio" and leaves. This is a nice subversion of gender norms: the man is calm and collected while the woman is emotional and 'sensitive', yet we are clearly to side with the woman, despite being conditioned to approve more of the communication style of the man.

Compare that with this scene from earlier in the episode, after Bailey has told Scott that she's seeing Nick again, and Scott has been brutally honest about her concerns:

Rachel: (coming in) Hey. You know I spent ages organising the balloons, the helium, the other - well it's shit - and all anyone else had to do was go pick stuff up, and she talks to me like bollocks and everyone else is fucking wonderful!
Nick: Well - why?
Rachel: (turns tv off) D'you wanna marry me? I'm proposing to you. D'you wanna marry me.
Nick: (amazed) Well - um - I can't - I -
Rachel: After the divorce goes through. (Nick is making faces and laughing in disbelief) I didn't think so. (she walks away)
Nick: Have you - 
Rachel: What, been at the bottle? Yeah. You know, she implied - no she didn't, she didn't imply, she said it, she said that the only reason you're going out with me is because you're frightened I'll wreck your life for you, if I don't stay on the right side of you. Are you?
Nick: No.
Rachel: But you don't want to marry me.
Nick: I wish you wouldn't talk to your colleagues - 
Rachel: Am I just kidding myself?
Nick: About what?
Rachel: About this, about us.
Nick: I wish you wouldn't drink.
Rachel: Pff, you drink.
Nick: Well, to that extent, before you even get here.
Rachel: Did Caroline [his wife] not like a little drink?
Nick: Can we not talk about Caroline?
Rachel: Or Martina [the juror], what about her? (he rolls his eyes) You know I said to her, I said he's changed. But you know, she's amazing Janet, 'cos she just cuts to the chase, she goes right for the jugular. 
Nick: Rachel, I have changed, and I don't give a damn what Janet thinks or says, I just think getting married is ... it's a big step! 
Rachel: She's right though, isn't she?
Nick: (exasperated) Well I don't know because you haven't told me what she said yet - 
Rachel: You're just protecting your own paltry little carcass.
Nick: That's just rubbish!
Rachel: First thing in the morning I'm gonna go to Godzilla's office, and I'll tell her all about you and your little juror friend or I might just do it right now. (gets out her phone)
Nick: Rachel ...
Rachel: What, don't make calls when you're pissed? Or, only in emergencies - (he tries to snatch the phone from her and she fights him off. There's a pause)
Nick: Alright look, we'll get married.
Rachel: (laughs) What?
Nick: We'll get married, if this is what it takes to prove to you that I love you, we'll get married, I just wish you wouldn't GET like this! (he puts his face in his hands and she looks stricken)
Rachel: I'm sorry. 
Nick: It's alright.
Rachel: Is it?
Nick: Yeah.
Rachel: I  had a really shit day, after she had a go at me - I've never fallen out with her, not for more than 10 minutes, and then I started to think things, so I - I'm sorry. (they kiss)
Nick: Smoking.
Rachel: Yeah. Sorry. I'll go and brush my teeth. (she walks out and he shakes his head, looking worried)

This is, in some ways, quite similar to the exchange between Gill and Dave. There is some question as to the moral 'truth' of what's going on (is Nick just keeping Rachel sweet? is Dave acting out of concern for his son) and in both cases, I think the audience is intended to side with the women in their interpretation. The difference is in the attitudes of the characters. While Dave stays very calm in contrast to Gill's rising emotion, the emotional temperature of the conversation between Nick and Rachel starts off high and gets higher, with both of them speaking loudly and quickly. We think we know that Rachel is right in her suspicions (we trust the judgement of Scott, for a start, and we already know how manipulative and slippery Nick is) and that allows us to see more clearly the insidious nature of his machinations here. His continual evading of the issue (bringing up her drinking, and her talking to her colleagues) looks more suspicious than it might if we hadn't previously been persuaded that he's manipulating her. As it is, his implication that she's only accusing him of this because she's drunk looks desperate and rather pathetic. It's also very telling that she manages to brush this evasive behaviour off until the end of the conversation, after he has convinced her that she is the one in the wrong by insisting that it's her behaviour that is unreasonable rather than his. When she capitulates and they kiss, that innocuous little exchange about her smoking highlights perfectly the insidious nature of his controlling behaviour. Whereas earlier his comments about her behaviours that he finds unacceptable are brushed off, now she quickly apologises and goes to make herself more acceptable to him.

This scene, for me, is a perfect illustration of a potentially abusive relationship. Nick's focus on Rachel's unacceptable habits, his complaints about her talking to other people about him, his attempt to make her believe that things are different from how she perceives them - this is classic emotional manipulation and it's one of the things that, for me, clearly marks this show out as progressive. We know that Rachel is right (and it is proved later in the episode), we know that Nick is lying and this is therefore a chilling portrayal of a man manipulating a woman in order to control her behaviour for his own benefit. The fact that both Murray and Scott can see this where Bailey can't, and try to make her "open her eyes" is also significant. Bailey is far from perfect - she is impetuous and stubborn and has made any number of foolish decisions, both professional and personal. Her professional misjudgement often stems from her poor personal judgement, as when she uses her role as a DC to find out Nick's home address from his car registration after she discovers that he is married. She also tells Nick confidential information about her job.

Is Rachel sadly un-feminist, for being potentially brilliant professionally but a complete mess personally, and allowing her personal life to cloud her professional judgement? Well, it may not be ideal, but it has enabled some wonderful interaction between three extremely strong women characters. Scott and Murray have Bailey's back throughout, and although they chastise her for her poor judgement, they ultimately support her, whilst making it clear that her behaviour is both stupid and unacceptable. In the next series, presumably the Nick Savage storyline will be finished with, and we'll get to see Bailey in other contexts. Something else to look forward to is a new character to be introduced, described in the blurb as "the formidable DCI Julie Dobson". I am keeping my fingers crossed for another intriguing, imperfect, highly-watchable character.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Hand-Kissing and 'Chivalry'

Something that I absolutely detest is strangers kissing my hand. I have never seen this happen to a someone who is presenting as a man, not once. I have seen it happen to people presenting as women numerous times, and I've experienced it myself far too often. My discomfort with it is partly based on its genderedness - I hate behaviours that so clearly separate 'men' from 'women', particularly when it's someone else who is behaving in this way, so I can't do anything to change it.

However, it's also just plain unpleasant. A stranger's lips on my skin? No! Why? I understand that this is culturally condoned behaviour, and that in many cultures (including ours, it seems), it is considered acceptable and possibly even polite to do this. But I just ... can't take it. A handshake I can take; even, in some circumstances, a hug. But hand-kissing is different, and the difference is that, for the most part, you don't have a choice when someone kisses your hand. In my experience people grip your hand really quite hard, and resist your pulling it away.

I was in the Embankment Gardens last week with a date. We were sitting on the grass in the last of the sunshine, chatting. We were approached by a man with a collecting tin who held out his hand to my friend and, when she took it, he first shook it and then kissed it. When he held out his hand to me, I said "please don't kiss my hand" and held out my hand. He took it and tried to kiss it, so I pulled my hand back saying "don't kiss my hand". My friend gave him some money and told him to be well. I reluctantly put a few coins into his tin, not wanting to look mean since my friend had given him something. He took my hand again and tried to kiss it. I wrenched my hand away and repeated the only words I'd said to him since he approached us. He backed off. He looked at us. He waved his hand vaguely in our direction. "Lesbians?" We stared at him. "Lesbians, cool. Gays, urgh, they can fuck off. Lesbians ok."*

OK, so that guy was hateful. I guess not everybody who tries to kiss your hand is like that. But, to me, that experience kind of epitomises the reasons that I'm uncomfortable with it. The people who kiss your hand don't give you the choice, and they don't accept that touching you should be your choice as well as theirs. Hand-kissing says "I am entitled to touch you". It says (usually) "I'm a man and you're a woman, so this is ok". It says "This kind of behaviour pedestalises you, and women like being pedestalised, so this is ok". I don't like the distancing that it involves, the implication that we are so different. A handshake is equality; a hand-kiss is hierarchy. I don't like the implication that I should be flattered or pleased, that I should giggle or blush or feel pretty and delicate. It's pretty much the same reason I don't like most acts of 'chivalry', when 'chivalry' means men performing kind acts for women because he's a man and she's a woman, not because he's a kind person that likes opening doors for people regardless of their gender. Chivalry implies difference, implies distance - implies strength on one side and weakness on the other. Hand-kissing is those things too, but with added nonconsensual touching. My favourite.

*I'd be interested to know why that guy read us as lesbians. Did we look like lesbians? It's not unlikely. Or was it because I didn't want him to kiss my hand? Perhaps he's an old fashioned guy, who saw 'bodily autonomy' and thought 'feminist' and therefore 'man-hating' and therefore 'lesbian'. And by "old-fashioned", I of course mean "dickhead". 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Claiming Identity

When it comes to who I am and what that means, one of the things I struggle most with is the idea of legitimacy.

Claiming an identity can be very important within marginalised communities - it gives individuals and groups something to rally around, something to take strength and comfort from, something to claim for their own in a world which often doesn't allow them very much. It can be an extremely empowering, life-affirming thing - maybe even in some cases literally life-saving. The discovery of a community of people, no matter how loose - a local meeting, an internet group, a social event - can make all the difference between feelings of isolation, freakishness, and despondency and those of strength, belonging and hope. Sometimes all it takes is a word, discovered by mistake or by desperate search, a word which you feel describes you, something you maybe didn't know was even possible.

I know for myself how important this process can be, and how much of a difference it can make to one's sense of self. I'd go as far as to say it is crucial. Obviously I can't speak for people other than myself, but that's been my impression within marginalised communities. I also know how damaging it is when people falsely claim a marginalised identity. The man who posed as a lesbian in order to run a lesbian news site, for example, and who hosted the man who posed as a young lesbian kidnapped by Syrian security forces. That incident blew a hole in the credibility of blogging as a whole, which is as nothing to the betrayal felt by the people who these men purported to represent. There is something disgusting about members of a privileged community posing as members of a non-privileged community, whatever the reasons behind it. It is hurtful to all manner of political causes, social entities, support communities and individuals whether involved with these things or not.

So where does that leave someone who hovers on the borders of identity? I am personally invested in a number of marginalised identities, and I have often found solace in identifying with these labels, engaging with the work of others who share them, and attending events where I know people who claim a particular identity will be welcome and sometimes even make up the majority. I find this a huge comfort in times of stress and pain. But I can't help feeling guilty about it at the same time, particularly when my identity is in flux.

For example, I no longer feel comfortable in woman-only spaces, where once I might have sought solidarity. I feel uncomfortable in LGBT spaces, where I am frequently read as something that I'm not. I feel desperately uncomfortable in Jewish spaces and in spaces where I engage in discussion about mental health, as in these places I feel more than anywhere else that I am claiming something that is not mine to claim.

I worry about the implications of claiming any identity for myself. I feel like I need something, because I am so clearly not the default setting for human being - straight, cis, male - and something in me needs to acknowledge that, and acknowledge it robustly. But I can't let that acknowledgement destabilise pre-existing communities that are based on shared identities that I don't necessarily share. I feel a kinship with some of these communities, an affinity, but do they feel it with me? There is, as I said previously, something disgusting about members of a privileged community claiming the identity of a non-privileged community, and as someone who routinely passes as cisgender, straight, monogamous, non-Jewish and mentally healthy, I feel like some of that disgust would legitimately fall on my shoulders if I claimed otherwise.

On the other hand, I wouldn't apply these strictures to other people. If someone tells me they belong in a certain space, then they belong in that space, no questions asked. I wouldn't delegitimise them, although I would myself, in the same way that I would never shame anyone else for not having the 'right' body shape, whilst I frequently shame myself. I subscribe totally to the idea of self-identification. If you say you are a woman, you are a woman, no matter how others read you or what your biology is. If you say you are bisexual, you are bisexual, no matter how many people of any gender you have had sex with, or how many people tell you it doesn't exist. But there is something holding me back from allowing myself the same flexibility.

There is a part of me that suspects that it is my wavering mental stability which stops me from claiming whatever identity I want to claim. Perhaps my sense of self worth is not high enough to legitimise my wholehearted embracing of a marginalised identity - which is damaging enough for me, with my supportive loving family and supportive loving friends. I wonder how many other people are out there, people with far less privilege and a much more fragile support network, if any - I wonder how many of these people are denying themselves community and warmth out of some sense of illegitimacy. I wonder if we're thoughtlessly excluding these people by the very words that we use for ourselves, the very identities that we construct and rally around. What is strength and hope for us is, by one more turn of the screw, isolation and devastation for others.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Musings on 'Dirk Gently' and 'Sherlock'

I've just watched the second episode of Dirk Gently on BBC iPlayer. The pilot was great, as I remember it (it was screened in December 2010), and the first episode was fun, if silly. But with the second episode came the introduction of Dirk's partner's girlfriend, played by Helen Baxendale, and that's where the problems begin.

Susan's main function in this episode, unsurprisingly, is to throw the relationship between Dirk and Macduff into relief. She gets to be present because the pair are working on a case in Cambridge, and Susan happens to be applying for a job in Cambridge. Here's their conversation before her interview.

Susan: I really need to get ready for my interview - are you sure you're alright?
(they are interrupted by plot stuff, which concludes with an automated voice reading out Macduff's emails)
Computer: Hello Richard. Only Mum. Just a short note to remind you about lunch on Sunday. Do bring Susan if you feel you must.
Susan: I'll see you later.
Macduff: No - Susan - ! 
(she walks away but he is detained by Dirk and catches her up a bit later)
Macduff: Susan! Hey. I'm sorry. Don't - you know my mum, she doesn't mean that.
Susan: It's a relief to be honest. Now I don't have to feel guilty about not liking her
Macduff: You don't like my mum?
Susan: Oh Richard, nobody likes your mother.
Macduff: I suppose she is uniquely unlikeable.
Susan: Are you going to wish me luck for my interview then?
Macduff: Yes. Good luck for your interview.
Susan: You don't mean that, do you.
Macduff: I don't want to move to Cambridge Susan, I don't, I really don't. I'm sorry. Dirk, and the Agency, you know I can't, I can't just walk away. I'm - look, ignore me, forget it, don't think about that now. Listen, hey! You might not even get the job!
Susan: Thanks.
Macduff: Good luck. (kisses her)

Susan is offered the job. When she presses Macduff, this is how he responds:

Susan: Richard, wait! They need an answer about the job by the end of the day. That's if we haven't both been arrested by then.
Macduff: I don't want to move to Cambridge.
(break of a few scenes)
Macduff: I want to be Dirk's partner - I want to make the agency work.
Susan: Richard, he will never treat you as his partner.
Macduff: It's just how he is. Despite everything he does and as difficult as it is to believe, I think he might be brilliant. (pause) Don't ever let him know I said that. And I think that, deep down I think he needs me even though he'd rather die than admit it. (pause) Please don't make me choose. 

So there's plenty of good stuff to choose from here. Firstly, the cliched dislike between a man's girlfriend and his mother, which inevitably pits them against one another as competitors for the man's affection and respect. It is played for laughs here, as it almost always is (those silly women and their jealousy!), and here we also have the knowledge, suggested by Susan and confirmed by Macduff, that Macduff's mother is "uniquely unlikeable" (as indeed we can see for ourselves, thanks to her unpleasant email to her son). She's a mother-in-law joke waiting to happen.

But my main issue with their relationship, as portrayed by these few short scenes, is what is revealed by Macduff's attitude to Susan's potential job. We aren't shown much more than this, so we can't know if they have already discussed it and come to the conclusion that if Susan gets the job, they both must move to Cambridge. But I'm going to assume it, based on the fact that neither of them brings up the possibility of him staying in London without her, or them staying in London together and her commuting to Cambridge (an unlikely solution, granted). We can assume that this is the only possible option if Susan takes the job - and, indeed, this is necessarily the case if the point of this whole story-line is to endanger the working relationship of Macduff and Dirk, which is how I see it. Susan's sole purpose in this episode is to bring to a head the tension between Dirk and Macduff, who Dirk treats pretty badly, insisting on calling him his "assistant", giving him the most mundane / unpleasant / dangerous tasks and generally taking him for granted. Macduff needs another character to express this to, and who better than a pseudo-girlfriend who can act as a catalyst for their troubled working relationship?

Throughout the rest of the episode Dirk apparently assumes that Macduff will be leaving him, and at the end, back in their London offices, he seems surprised when he sees Susan and Macduff, saying "shouldn't you two be halfway up the M11 en route to your new life in Cambridge?" Susan tells him that she didn't get the job - "they had a last minute change of heart". I knew straight away what this change of heart would entail, and sure enough, it is soon revealed that Dirk has called the company and given Susan a damaging character reference, including details of "her history of sexually harassing patients". Susan hears this on an answering machine message and rounds on Dirk, saying "You conniving little - !" and the bouncy theme music plays as the credits roll.

Now, I don't think the programme is exactly excusing Dirk's behaviour. The 'joke' is set up at the end with Susan trying to pay Dirk a compliment and apologise for thinking he is a self-serving bastard. They are interrupted by the phone message which reveals his duplicity. He is clearly shown to be a self-serving bastard, as Susan says. But this plays out in the same way that Sherlock Holmes' selfishness does in the BBC's Sherlock (as indeed it does in many recent adaptions of the Holmes/Watson stories. Holmes is a clever, unpleasant man. His sidekick Watson is exasperated but loyal, and his romantic relationships with women are continually undermined by the behaviour of Holmes, who acts out of a selfish desire to keep Watson to himself). In Dirk Gently, Dirk is less of an analytical machine than Holmes - his is more of a bumbling, random-chance, instinct-led type of detection which is none-the-less successful - yet his treatment of his sidekick is strikingly similar. Macduff is the down-to-earth voice of reason who acts as a foil to Dirk's quirky 'holistic' detective work, and he is also the long-suffering dogsbody, constantly making tea, being refused a chair or desk in the office and trying ineffectually to keep Dirk on the right side of the law. His relationship with Susan is brought up for the first time in this episode, and its inclusion is for the sole purpose of highlighting this unequal relationship with Dirk. Through Susan, the cipher-girlfriend, we learn that Dirk is brilliant, even if he is a bastard. We learn that Macduff is deeply invested in both Dirk and his detective agency. We learn that Dirk "needs" Macduff, but that Dirk must never know that Macduff knows this. We learn that this relationship, which looks so flawed, works for both parties, and we know that we don't need to question it because Susan has done it for us.

Susan gets no characteristics, no personality of her own, beyond that which is necessary to throw those of Dirk and Macduff into relief. Her professional ambition is acceptable only in that it throws a spanner into the relationship between the two men, and it can be killed off neatly at the end once we have learnt that their working relationship is perfectly fine, thank you very much. Dirk's behaviour is not excused - he is definitely a self-serving bastard - but I think it is exonerated by its positioning at the end of the episode, by the way in which Susan's obvious and entirely justified outrage is cut off by the chirpy theme music. That's just the way he is! He's a bastard, and people will suffer because of him, but that's ok because he's on the side of the righteous. He and Macduff can detect in peace, now that Macduff's inconveniently independent girlfriend has been put back in her place.

And don't even get me started on the gay nerds. There are three non-straight men in this episode, all of whom met on an online gaming site. Two of them are shown in bed together wearing pointy elf ears, and the third (Asian-British) is highly feminized, squealing shrilly and comically when Dirk breaks his nose. So that's sexism, racism, homophobia, geek-shaming, mother-in-law jokes and playing the ruining of someone's career for laughs. Nice work, BBC!

This detective-sidekick pairing follows very similar lines to the Holmes/Watson pairing in Sherlock. There hasn't as yet been any evidence of the homoerotic subtext that is so common in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but the triangular relationship between detective-sidekick-sidekick's partner is incredibly similar. The two men have a working relationship which is also ambiguously personal, and the partner of the sidekick threatens this relationship in some way. (Although the gay subtext isn't there between Dirk and Macduff, it is interesting that Macduff is continually insisting that he is Dirk's "partner", something that Dirk refuses to admit although it is technically true.) The detective is jealous of the sidekick's partner for taking the attention of the sidekick, and the sidekick's partner is eye-rollingly tolerant of the businesslike-but-oddly-personal relationship between her partner and the detective. The situation continues tolerably until some incident in the romantic relationship (marriage, a job in another city) threatens the stability of the relationship between detective and sidekick, and that's when the detective starts behaving badly in order to scupper the relationship between the sidekick and his partner (embarrassing them at a fancy dinner in the 2009 Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes, sabotaging the career of the partner in Dirk Gently. Interestingly this aspect hasn't been depicted in Sherlock - perhaps we need to wait for the third series. Watson's relationships so far - all minor - have been scuppered by his obsession with Holmes - he can barely remember his girlfriends' names and keeps abandoning them to work on cases with Holmes. This is more to do with Watson's inadequacy than Holmes' selfishness).

There are multiple layers to the tension between the two pairings. The detective sees the romantic relationship as a hindrance to the important business of detecting, and the sidekick's partner sees the detecting as a childish distraction from 'real life' (this seems to involve marriage / settling down / making sacrifices for one's partner like moving to Cambridge). The woman is at once portrayed as the grown-up, responsible outsider who tolerates the childish games of the boys, and as the nagging adult bore who wants to spoil their fun / doesn't understand the importance of the job.

The programmes themselves seem ambivalent on the proper response to this. Are these romantic partners silly, frivolous nags who represent a feminine threat to the relaxed, manly pursuits of detection? Or are they mature, responsible adults trying desperately to persuade their immature man-children to grow up and engage in a real relationship / proper job / normal life? I don't think the programmes come down firmly on one side or the other. Both interpretations are implied, and both represent a zero-sum understanding of the options involved. Either the homosocial pairing is adventurous, clever, successful and fun, whilst the heterosexual pairing is boring and restrictive, or the homosocial pairing is childish and comically inept whilst the heterosexual pairing is mature, responsible and fulfilling. What is clear is that men and women are irreconcilably different, and that the sidekick - poor everyman Watson - cannot have both. He must choose: fun times and boyish adventures with his infuriating but brilliant pal? - or a nice, normal, heterosexual relationship? At no point in any of these adaptations is it suggested that the two can coexist. Either the working relationship is damaging the romantic relationship by taking all the time and attention of the sidekick, or the romantic relationship is damaging the working relationship by giving the sidekick non-work-related responsibilities (such as the honeymoon in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows).

What this means for gender portrayals in Dirk Gently, then, is that Susan - the only woman on the detecting 'side' - is inevitably invisible as a real character. Her whole purpose is to create drama and highlight the issues between Dirk and Macduff. I'm not arguing that the programme is sexist, or that men are portrayed more flatteringly than the women - Dirk's is not exactly a positive portrayal of manhood - but poor Susan is given no life at all. She is definitively absent from the real meat of the episode, on which she can only provide a commentary and, by her mere existence, shore up the emotional interplay between the two 'real' characters. Nobody wins the gender wars here: presenting conflicting relationships as a zero-sum game in which one wins and the other loses inevitably denies the humanity of all concerned, and ultimately keeps men and women safely distanced from one another, with little hope of a nuanced portrayal.

My Customer-Service Fantasy

In a short while I'm going to put some clothes on and walk into town to visit the Apple store. My poor little laptop just can't take the heat any more, and I need to investigate the possibilities of buying a new one. I can't really afford another Mac, but I can't go back to a PC now, can I?!

Anyway. I have a little fantasy about how this is going to go.

I'll take my little list of details about the specifications of my machine (because I'm utterly clueless about what any of it really means and so couldn't reel off its properties off the top of my head, like many of my friends can). I'll breeze into the big, cool, clean space of the Apple store and I'll start playing with one of the test-machines they have out for just that purpose. At some point I'll be approached by a cute Apple-geek - impossibly thin, wearing maybe a checked shirt and chinos, with a casual hipster haircut and glorious shoes. They'll ask me if I need any help, and I'll say "yeah, actually I do" and I'll explain my situation. They'll nod intelligently while I fluently recite my list of specifications, and tell them what I need a computer to do, and what options I've been considering and why. They'll smile at me - maybe they'll think I'm cute, too, and they'll be endeared to me by my obvious amateurish understanding of computers and what they do.

They'll be the perfect assistant. They will be knowledgeable and interesting, and they won't actually try to sell me anything, but they will understand what I need and they'll be just dying to spend half an hour talking me through the options and showing me features of cool Apple stuff. They'll be overtly passionate about the products but they won't up-sell - they'll know when a specification is high enough for my needs, and they'll say "you don't need that, this is fine for you". When I say "I'm not going to buy anything today, I'm going to wait for the summer when the new operating system is released", they'll tell me the exact date when that's going to happen, and they'll tell me if it's worth waiting. Hopefully they'll tell me that that they'll throw it in for free if I buy a new computer today!

They'll be on my side. They'll be interested in my needs and desires, and they will love the products so much that they'll want to talk to me about them. I'll emerge half an hour later, my head brimming with knowledge and intelligent opinions about the pros and cons of various options. Perhaps I'll have asked the cute Apple-geek out for coffee. It could happen!

It won't go like this, of course. More likely, I'll wander in, stand around awkwardly waiting for someone to approach me, and then eventually I'll be faced by some sullen teenager who just wants me to leave so they can return to standing around clock-watching until their shift is over. I'll leave 3 minutes later with precisely no more knowledge than I had when I went in, and no coffee date either.

But hey, a consumer can dream.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Why Aren't You Fixed Yet?

Earlier this year, I attended as many free counselling sessions as my university can provide, which is six. My counsellor was very clever and very nice, and I found the sessions always interesting, if not always helpful. When we came to the end of the programme, she told me that I could always re-refer myself to the counselling service, but that it was generally considered best to leave it a while before I did so, if I did so at all. This made sense to me, in so far as I rationally believed what she told me, even if I didn't quite trust it in my heart. She had done her best to instill in me the knowledge that these six sessions would not be a magic cure-all for the problems I had been experiencing, and that there would not be an instant change in my feelings. She told me that what I could do to start with was try to recognise the instances when a particular feeling arose - not necessarily to do anything about it, but simply to recognise it when it was there. She told me that this would be the beginning of 'getting over it'.

It's been a month since my last session. I'm not impatient, and I'm not expecting a miracle. I know that I can't hope to change in so short a time. I did, however, have hopes that I'd at least feel different about it. Since that session I have felt the worst feeling on a number of occasions, and I have tried to accept it and not let it overwhelm me. I have been sensible (for the most part) and done practical things when I can, and accepted the times when I couldn't. I have been more honest with more people about these times, and I have tried to let them help me by being there (or not being there). I feel like I am following my counsellor's advice as best I can. I want to feel better about it.

In fact, I feel worse about it. I don't feel that I've helped myself, or that the times when I feel bad are more bearable because I have some idea where they're coming from. They feel less bearable, because I am now able to be meaner to myself about them surely if you know where they're coming from, you can do something about them, you useless waster?. Now in addition to feeling the worst feeling, I get to beat myself up with admonishments about the worst feeling why haven't you fixed it yet?. And it's not like I didn't admonish myself before you lazy fuck. But now I have a concrete thing to fix on, it's somehow worse. I don't just feel guilty for feeling the feeling, I feel guilty for not succeeding in 'getting over it', even with the help of a trained counsellor. Why did you even bother?

Six hours. Six hours, over six weeks, and I feel I achieved less in that time and its aftermath than I would have done if I'd just sat at home and felt terrible about myself. Someone else, who could have actually used some counselling, would have had my slot. I wouldn't feel as bad about myself as I do now, and they might feel better.

It's like a drug, this feeling of doing something about it. It's sustaining. I did feel better during those six weeks. Even when I felt the worst feeling, I felt slightly detached, like I was documenting my emotion. I felt purposeful. When it descended I felt like there was some merit in simply sinking into it and seeing where it led. It didn't lead anywhere good, but I didn't feel so guilty about it. Now when it happens, I feel guilty and powerless and desperate. I don't have time for this! Fix it! Pull yourself together, for fucks sake.

The thing is, I don't feel able to contact the counselling service a second time. She said I could self-refer again, but that I should leave it a while why aren't you fixed yet?. I know how stretched the service is already, and I don't feel right in taking another six hours of their time why aren't you fixed yet?. I don't deserve those six hours, which could go to someone who truly needs them why aren't you fixed yet?. I could try asking my doctor to refer me for NHS counselling, although I hear from friends that it's close to impossible to get this why aren't you fixed yet?. So that leaves professional - ie. paid-for counselling, which I can in no way afford why aren't you fixed yet?.

That's right, that's the bottom line. I can't justify spending any money on my emotional well-being, because on some level I don't believe that I'm worth it. I won't spend money on feeling better, because I don't deserve to feel better why the hell aren't you better?

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Dear Cis Friends

Dear cisgender friends and acquaintances,

Is it too much to ask, when I tell you that I am using a different name and pronouns now from the ones that you are used to, is it too much to ask that you just say "ok"? Must I every. single. time. hear how difficult it is going to be for you, how confusing it is to suddenly start using different words? Must I be told how supportive you are of my decision, and how brave you think I am?

Must you tell me every. single. time. that I must make allowances for you, and forgive you when you make mistakes, because it will be really. really. hard. for you?

Do you think you are special and different? Do you think you are the only one to say that to me today - this week - this month? Do you think you will show me how tolerant you are, by telling me that you will try your hardest but you will undoubtedly slip up sometimes, and I shouldn't be hurt because you're trying so very hard?

Listen, my lovelies, I know it's hard. I know I'm asking you to check yourself every time you instinctively reach for the words that you think identify me, and I know that it's a challenge and that you will fuck up. I even know that you know that, and that you mean so, so well when you tell me that it will be difficult for you. But how difficult do you think it is for me to hear that? Every time I tell somebody, I get the same response (when I'm lucky, and it's a positive response!). How difficult do you think it is to hear, over and over again, that my life is hard for you to rub along with? How much better do you think I would feel if you just said "ok Ollie" and then tried your best, rather than making sure that I know just how hard you're going to try? There's so much pressure there - so much weight. You know what I hear when you say that? "Ok, I'll tolerate this, if I must, but never forget that I'm doing you a huge favour, and make sure you make it easy for me by forgiving my errors in advance."

Now, I know that that's not what you mean. I know you are genuinely supportive, and genuinely conscientious, and genuinely worried that you will mess up and I will be upset. But can't you see the weight that puts me under? Can't you see how much you're adding to my load? I know you're going to mess it up sometimes. I'm not going to hate you for that, and I'm going to trust you when you say that you mean well and that you didn't do it to hurt me or deny my identity. I believe in your support, and your effort, and your love. Please stop asking me for constant preemptive reassurances that my identity can slip your mind with impunity.

Yours in hope,