Cherry Potter is author of many articles in The Guardian and The Times, and has made regular broadcast appearances on both BBC Radio 3 & Radio 4.
The Guardian: Comment and Opinion
Are boot camps for badly behaved teenagers mistaking conformity for emotional growth? In recent years we have become impatient with namby-pamby liberal therapies. Behavioural psychology is back in fashion. Never mind working with the causes of distress; just fix the problem by changing behaviour. But isn’t there something chilling about what Brat Camp is telling us about society’s increasingly punitive attitude to disaffected adolescents?
Why this sudden interest in Alfred Kinsey, a sexologist who died over half a century ago, before most of today’s audience was born? Is Kinsey’s story just an excuse for another nostalgia biopic with a touch of sex to spice it up? Or does his work still have relevance for modern generations?
New Scientist came up with a provocative headline recently: “Genes blamed for the fickle female orgasm”. This was about a British study into women’s ability to climax … or not. June has been a hot, steamy month, and sex is fun. But underlying the innuendo are serious questions about female sexuality that have perplexed sexologists for decades and caused women a great deal of confusion about their bodies.
The Oscars are generating a flurry of media excitement about the strong parts played by the best actress nominees. But are we really entering a new phase in gender relations? The fact remains that since 1929, when the Oscars began, men have written, produced and directed – in short created – the vast majority of these screen images of feisty, pioneering women. Watching them, we learn a lot about how men’s view of women has changed. But what about women’s view of themselves?
In a recent interview, the psychologist Frank Tallis, author of the book Love Sick, pointed out similarities in the symptoms of being in love and of mental health disorders. Both are characterised by mania (elevated mood, inflated self-esteem, extravagant gift-giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration) and obsessive compulsive disorder (preoccupation, hygiene rituals, hoarding valueless but resonant items). I was naturally interested, having suffered from some of these symptoms myself. But just because being in love has similar symptoms to some mental disorders, does that mean we have to treat it?
It’s official. Women’s favourite fictional male icon is Mr Darcy. But why does the dark, smouldering, moody Mr Darcy continue to have a compelling hold over women, particularly educated literary feminist women, in the 21st century? Is it that Jane Austen’s novel provides a perfect blank screen onto which Darcy’s many admirers can project that most archetypal of all female fantasies – that they will be the one and only woman to discover the key to unlocking a man’s tortured soul, thus setting free his hidden passions? What message is this Darcy fixation sending to men? On the one hand, women say they want men who are emotionally intelligent, sensitive, flexible, who enjoy sharing equally and are fun to be with. But these same women are swooning over a fictional character who is the epitome of the dominant patriarchal male. No wonder men are confused.
The Stepford Wives remake highlights Hollywood’s retreat into 1950s gender conformity. But why this current fascination with old-fashioned femininity? Is it because, as Close and Midler suggest, we are living in an era of ultra conformity? Just like in the cold war 50s, when Hollywood thrived on fears of the evil Russians and alien invaders from outer space, people are scared. In our present insecure world of global warming and global terrorism, people are similarly preoccupied with the domestic arena: home make-overs, the latest style accessories, creating a safe space to have babies, the Atkins diet and cosmetic surgery – the few areas of life we can control. In such a climate, surely it’s churlish to bang on about a male conspiracy? These Hollywood retro films seem conveniently to have forgotten that the 50s are an object lesson in the male backlash against the gains made in the war-torn 40s, when women really did prove their metal along side the men.
A new genre has appeared in the film/TV world – “older bird” movies. Sorry, that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “chick-lit”. But what else are we to call the recent trend for comedy dramas about the sexual awakening of middle-aged women, particularly those who discover that some men actually find them beautiful without their clothes on? The question is why these comedies are appearing now?
Tonight at the Oscars don’t let the ecstatic performances of a handful of super-glamorous Hollywood actresses pull the wool over your eyes. Take a close look at the list of nominations and you will get an all too familiar picture of the state of gender inequality in the movie business today. Out of a total 182 nominees, 152 are men and 30 are women. So, does it matter that the film industry continues to be male-dominated? After all, some of the most notable films nominated are about women. Or is this, like the shimmering personas of their stars on the podium, also part of the illusion Hollywood likes to project of female equality and power?
The codes of honour that inspire movie stars like Tom Cruise make less sense outside the cinema. Guns are cowardly. Modern cinema audiences, it seems, want heroes who can do more than squeeze a trigger. They want the swashbuckling bravado of Pirates of the Caribbean, the magical feats of The Lord of the Rings, or the ancient art of the warrior in Kill Bill and The Last Samurai. Might this disdain for the weapons of modern warfare indicate a growing unease, guilt, even shame, when mass murder can be achieved with the press of a button? Or is that too much to hope for?
What has gone wrong with romantic comedies? After each heavily hyped release, I leave the cinema feeling numb, as if I have been hit over the head by a Barbie doll. I’m rom coms’ biggest fan. The best of the genre are great fun and they give tantalising insights into men, women, sex, love and relationships, which, if you think about it, are central preoccupations for most of us. So why has there been this recent decline into mannerist pastiches of rom coms past?
For the past 30 years feminists have been trying to kill off Cinderella. She makes a terrible role model. Instead of asserting herself by standing up to her wicked stepmother and spiteful sisters and getting a life, Cinderella is a miserable stay-at-home waiting passively for a fairy godmother to transform her and for Prince Charming finally to resolve all her problems. But despite feminist Colette Dowling’s controversial theory in The Cinderella Complex, that the story reveals women’s deep-seated hidden fear of independence, Cinderella has tenaciously refused to die. Instead, the story has been whittled down and Cinderella herself has undergone numerous makeovers to keep her appeal alive for each new generation.
Since the millennium, a succession of women film-makers have entered the formerly male territory of sado-masochism and screen violence. Is this a sign that women have finally thrown off their shackles? (Or put them on, if that’s your thing?) Now women can do anything men can do both in front of and behind the camera. Like Lara Croft, or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, they can kick butt, kill 10 men with one blow, save the world and give great sex. Or are women film-makers and their on-screen sisters being co-opted into the glamorous, testosterone-driven world of screen sex and violence under the guise of liberation?
Does it matter if the world loses its rich diversity of film cultures and one nation dominates international cinema? Or have we all grown so used to ubiquitous Hollywood that it seems churlish even to ask the question?
The majority of writers live on less than the cleaners who mop the publishers’ toilets. According to the most recent Society of Authors survey, two-thirds earned less than half the national average wage and half earned less than the minimum wage. Yet the creative industries of which they are the foundation – film, TV, theatre and publishing – generate some £60bn a year in revenue. So why is it that most authors, scriptwriters and playwrights – apart from the rare few who break through the glass ceiling to become superwriters – remain so unloved and unrewarded?
“Humiliation TV” is the generic term increasingly used to refer to any programme which appears to feed our voyeuristic desire to watch people being publicly embarrassed or shamed. The chief culprits, apart from the ubiquitous Big Brother, are pop psychology lifestyle programmes in which terrifyingly self-confident female presenters confront apparently willing victims with unpalatable truths. Ostensibly, many of these programmes are tackling the Big Question – how to stop getting it wrong so we can have a happier, more successful life. But are they also providing viewers with the psychological equivalent of a public flogging in the guise of self-improvement? And is the perceived element of cruelty the “tough-love” variety, or is there something more sinister going on?
So many TV documentaries, particularly the science ones, are beginning to look more like Hollywood disaster movies. The networks, particularly since the millennium, have been deluged with disaster docs: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, meteorites, antibiotic-resistant epidemics, the Sars virus and super-carriers. Whatever, so long as it wipes out lots of us and gives plenty of scope for computer simulations, dramatic reconstructions and cataclysmic speculation. But does it matter if they use fiction techniques, if they get their point across? Or are there real dangers in blurring the boundaries between so called “fact” and “fiction”?
Does it matter if just about every period novel on British television is adapted by one person? Isn’t it like putting all British meat through one butcher’s sausage machine – it all comes out tasting the same? Even more disturbing, does it matter if virtually the entire canon of 19th-century women’s literature is adapted by one person who also happens to be a man? Am I being a boorish feminist for even bringing up the subject?
The Times: Comment and Opinion
If we really want to understand the mindset of the Muslim fundamentalists, it’s time that the issue of sexual politics was addressed head on. Just how does the total domination of women in fundamentalist societies, Muslim and Christian, affect the men? After all, when it comes to sex, both genders are involved. And when it comes to extreme forms of aggression and violence, sublimated sexual fear and repression are all too often at the root of the problem.
THE MADRID stock market regulator has demanded twice-yearly disclosures about the love lives of business leaders. From July directors will have to declare all their “affectionate relationships”. That doesn’t mean just marriage partners and close family, it includes lovers and gay partners. The regulator, in its defence, has said that it is only trying to bring the rules up to date with “new forms of human relationships”. Oh dear. I wonder where the regulator has been for the entire history of mankind. One of our big problems as a species is that we are not good at lifelong monogamy, although we like to pretend that we are.
SPRING, SEDUCTION and a touch of madness are in the air. The editor of Radio Times has declared that Mr Darcy is about to be ousted as women’s most desirable romantic hero in favour of the eponymous star of Casanova, the BBC Three TV series. But is it really likely that the nation’s women might turn their back on the morally upright man of their dreams in favour of being seduced by a superficial philanderer? This is no idle question in the run-up to a general election.
The media are growing restless about “this apology disease that’s sweeping the country”. What with Boris being told to apologise to the people of Liverpool and the Queen having to say sorry to the Germans for the bombing of Dresden; to the Maoris, the Aborigines and the Irish Catholics for all the bad things we did to them in colonial times — except the potato famine, for which Tony Blair has already apologised. And now, to cap it all, she’s told to say sorry for what Britain did in the slave trade. What’s so interesting about this niggardly response to these big public apologies is how the media reaction almost exactly mirrors the uncomfortable feelings many of us have as individuals when we know we are expected to apologise. Irrespective of whether or not the apology is justified, obstinacy grabs hold of us. We just don’t want to say those three little words. What is it about apologising that has such an emotional power?
A glance at the history of romantic comedy shows how the most popular heroines encapsulate something about women’s own situation and their most pressing relationship dilemmas at the time the movies were made.
KILLING used to be a man’s game. But now movies are positively bursting with images of tough, sexy murderesses for whom wielding a gun (or samurai sword) is all part of a woman’s work.
The fashion editor of British Elle claims that the clothes are harking back “to when times were good”. And according to Muiccia Prada: “There’s a nostalgia for that kind of happiness. I chose the period for its symbolic value. It’s a symbol of being feminine, pretty, nice . . .” Well, that’s . . . nice, I suppose. But why do I have a niggling suspicion that, just like the Fifties themselves, all may not be as it seems?
Alain de Botton’s new book Status Anxiety, has that “great title” appeal. Like Alvin Toffler’s never- to-be-forgotten Future Shock, two simple words that tap into the social pulse of the age — what we all want and fear. After all, is there anybody out there who doesn’t suffer from status anxiety?
Supposing a woman finally breaks through the glass ceiling for the wrong reasons? Remember the Eighties and all that feminist squirming about Mrs Thatcher? Does it matter what the woman has achieved as long as we have a role model — at least one woman who has proved it is possible to get to the top in her field?
BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: an assessment of Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk with writer and psychoanalyst Cherry Potter and curator Daniel Bird.
BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Feminism and the Veil
BBC Television News at Ten interview Gurinder Chadha
BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Cinderella movies
BBC Radio 4 Francine Stock interview
BBC Radio 4 Back Row Women in Film
BBC Radio 4 Front Row How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
BBC Radio 4 Back Row ‘The Hours’ and issues of gender
BBC Radio 4 Front Row Sweet Home Alabama
BBC Radio 4 Front Row Food in Films
BBC Radio 4 Back Row Wedding Films
BBC Radio 4 Back Row Prostitutes in Film
BBC Radio 4 Front Row Birthday Girl