Take Me Out: a feminist’s dream?

ITV dating show

Take Me Out. It riles me. It grates with all my principles. It makes me feel embarrassed. Most of all, it makes me fear for the giant steps that women are currently making through campaigns such as This Girl Can and No More Page 3 (if you ignore the childish and aggressive behaviour of The Sun with regard to the latter). If I have these concerns then why do I continue to let my 6-year-old daughter watch Take Me Out? It’s all about the lessons she can learn.

“There’s a boy and a girl and if they switch their light off they don’t like him and then there’s one person left and they go on holiday to Fernando’s.” That’s how a child sums up the premise of Take Me Out, ITV’s 21st century (apparently) dating show. Simple, innocent, unquestioning. Of course, it’s great Saturday night entertainment and along with many other forms of entertainment where women aren’t given credit for having anything other than breasts, make-up and a desperate desire to meet Mr Right, many would say that it should just be treated as a bit of light-hearted fun. (Which brings us back to Page 3.) But as with many media portrayals deemed harmless and fun – think back to the racism in British TV shows in the 1970s – the potential for lasting damage, particularly on impressionable minds, is serious.

Why do I let my daughter watch it? Because her cranky mother with her feminist leanings sits next to her and provides a social commentary. Hands up – I enjoy the show. I enjoy it not because it makes me feel good about being a woman in 2015 but because of the constant amused disbelief it generates. It pleasurably raises my hackles and gives me full licence to pontificate to my daughter about everything that is wrong with the programme.

You shouldn’t judge people on their looks alone

In the last episode we watched, the majority of the girls switched off their lights on first sight of the man. What a blast to his self-esteem. We all form an immediate opinion of people based on first impressions – that’s normal – but we have to learn to recognise that shortfalling and then think beyond it.

“Won’t those girls who switched off their lights be really sad when they find out what a nice, interesting man he is?” I venture. Her argument was that the rules say you’re allowed to switch your light off in the first round – “No likey, no lighty, Mummy”. A rule’s a rule and I should probably be proud that she respects that.

It takes some effort to explain to a 6-year-old why it isn’t acceptable to judge someone based on how they look; they are still taking the first steps in developing empathy and mostly they are the centre of their own universe. Yet it doesn’t hurt to prod them in the ribs with a not-so-gentle reminder of how cruel TV ‘entertainment’ can be.

“Look mummy, she’s got trousers on”

As we watched the parade of girls at the beginning of Saturday’s show, I started to tut (quite rightly) about how they’d forgotten to put some of their clothes on. My daughter countered that the studio was probably quite hot. Fair point, but I went on to say how much better they would look dressed a little more … elegantly. My daughter told me that I’m not as stylish as the girls on Take Me Out. And they’re at least 20 years younger than me, dear daughter, and, as they are single and in all likelihood childless, they have a disposable income to deploy on looking ‘stylish’.

All is not lost though. When my daughter pointed out that one of the girls was actually wearing trousers (skin tight but at least no flesh on display) I congratulated myself with unashamed smugness that some of what I’ve preached might just be sinking in.

Fortunately, my 3-year-old son has no interest in Take Me Out. If he did then, yes, I would let him watch it too. And, yes, I would be equally keen to point out its inadequacies to him – perhaps with more vehemence than with my daughter. Part of that is that, whilst inequality continues, women are in dire need of help from men. It’s not up to women to fight alone but it will take more than Ed Miliband and Benedict Cumberbatch wearing t-shirts with slogans to force change from the roots up. Perhaps Take Me Out is another small step to educating the men and women of the future, providing we’re savvy enough to use all that is bad about it to do good.

2015: the year of channeling Elsa

Frozen

I like to have a New Year’s theme rather than resolutions. 2015 will be no different. But where to find a theme? It’s not until you have small children and are denied exposure to deep philosophical musings that you are by necessity forced to find meaning in Disney. Only when you reach this state can you consider adopting a song from Frozen as a mantra. And so it is that 2015 is the year of letting it go.

Thankfully, my daughter didn’t succumb to the Frozen obsession so I don’t tear my hair when Elsa lets rip on the mountainside. In fact, it still brings a tear to my eye as a good power ballad should. If I’m going down the song route for a theme, I could have adopted Ms Swift’s decision to ‘Shake It Off’ but quite frankly that’s something you do with dandruff or a nasty cold.

When 2015 makes me feel a bit arsey, I’m going to make the conscious decision to ‘let it go’. Or – as Gwynnie and Chris might put it – I’m going to consciously uncouple with anything that makes my hackles rise. This isn’t just about other people (and I’m thinking specifically of you here Man in Seat 11B). It’s about letting go of the self-inflicted time-wasting, procrastination and naval gazing that often sees me reach the end of a day having achieved very little at all. That can be a kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen. (Ahem.)

What else will I be focusing on?

LET IT GO: Checking Rightmove. An affliction of St Albans residents who are prone to an eternal preoccupation with house prices (when not worrying about school catchment areas). Rightmove searches simply confirm that (a) you don’t get much for your money here, and (b) that the truly rich really do have very little taste.

LET IT GO: Parental guilt. The Big One, often felt to be insurmountable. Letting go of this should not be confused with a lack of interest in your children or with allowing them to eat cheese strings and wear pyjamas to school every day. Letting go of parental guilt means not turning in/on yourself when your child doesn’t have anything planned for after school on a Wednesday and you don’t use that time to stuff their reading diary with Dostoevsky.

LET IT GO: Online groups for mums. Obviously I’m not referring to my hometown for our group is an unparalleled example of harmony and commonsense. If I were witness to any ugly online behaviour (which again I must stress I am not) from women with too much time on their hands, I would certainly be trying to let go of the overwhelming urge to bang their heads together.

There are some things that I will not be letting go of in 2015. First, my pelvic floor muscles. I’m still working on those (thanks kids) but fortunately I’m not in Elsa’s position of not being able to hold it back anymore. Secondly, myself. This New Year theme shouldn’t be confused with actually letting myself go (which is something I’ve pretty much done already and is thus no challenge).

On that note – as, with a mouthful of chocolate orange, you pour the residual Christmas booze down the sink before heading off down the gym – I wish you all a very Happy New Year and a calmer, less buttock-clenching 2015.

 

 

Flying with kids: a note to the man in seat 11B

plane travel

When you become a parent, you soon discover a lot of things that will make you feel really rubbish at your job. Sometimes it is your own children who wield this power but more often than not it’s other adults. I am writing this post whilst being made to feel like the most awful parent of the most terrible children in the world. As it is so raw, you must forgive any lack of compassion on my part. I’m not in the mood for putting myself in someone else’s shoes (or flight socks in this case). Being quite cross does that to you.

I am on a plane. A shortish flight of 5 hours. It is 7pm and the kids have been up for nearly 12 hours. The period before take-off is one of the trickiest parts of a flight for anyone shepherding small people. It’s that tortuous time when you’ve yet to fire up the iPads and have just realised that by packing the wrong flavor of crisps all hell will be set loose. What you don’t need at a moment like this is for the man in the row in front of you to ask to move seats. Before you’ve even left the ground.

So here are a few words to you, man in seat 11B. The words that thankfully won’t leave my mouth now that I’m placing them safely on paper.*

You don’t have children, do you? I don’t say that in a looking-down-at-you kind of way. I’m just stating the bleeding obvious. If you did then you would understand that overtiredness plus being strapped into a seat don’t make for a quiet child. You’d understand that telling me to take my child “for a walk” is going to wind me up. If you were a parent, I also doubt you’d have such a ludicrous hairstyle – adults learn that with the responsibility of children they have to grow up a bit. However much we might try to resist morphing into a grown-up, there are some ‘styles’ that just don’t cut it on the school run. Sorry to get personal with you but I take your reaction to my child very personally. Touché.

My 3-year-old may have shouted when I dared to produce those wrong crisps. He may have kicked the back of your chair. You may have overheard me tell him that he shouldn’t do that, but considering where your head seems to be firmly stuck I’m surprised you can hear a thing. Let me tell you, my friend – if you didn’t have your seat reclining then the little legs behind wouldn’t have been able to reach you so easily.

I thought perhaps you’d asked to move because your seat was broken. (I kindly gave you the benefit of the doubt and was prepared to tolerate having your ridiculous hair-do and incessant nose-clearing in my lap for the whole journey.) This turned out not to be the case as your seat was fine when the cabin crew asked you to put it upright. That you put it straight back down again as the woman walked away is testimony to your arrogance. I wonder whether you would have done the same if it had been an adult rather than a child behind you. Not that I’m questioning your manhood. Perhaps you think you need your seat reclining because you are so generously endowed in that respect. But I’ll hold back from any further comment on what/where/who is the enormous c*ck.

So whilst you appear not to like my children, there are – I know you’ll find it hard to believe – quite a lot of things that I don’t like about you. I’m tempted to make the remaining four hours of your journey hellish. Fortunately for you the kids are now firmly plugged into their entertainment and no amount of bribery could entice them away to scream in your ear or perform the 1812 Overture with their feet on your seat (which is still reclining). I do hope though that one day you will be on a plane with your children and someone will ask to move away from you. You might feel rather small and remember that once upon a time you were a bit of an ar*e. For the moment I think I’ll just read a dinosaur book quite loudly – I really hope I don’t wake you.

* Postscript: After much huffing and head-turning on the part of the man in seat 11B (or Mr Nobby Nobhead as I now call him), my son accidentally jogged his chair and sparked a full-on row. I don’t say boo to a goose so it takes some provocation for me to shout at or argue with a stranger. Suffice to say, my suspicions were confirmed – the man in seat 11B is indeed an idiot. 

 

Baking with children: the grim reality

Fairy cakes

Tonight, a nation of wannabe bakers will hang up their pinnies, dust the flour from their hands and settle down with a madeleine to watch the final of the Great British Bake Off. With all the tweeness of an afternoon at Midsomer Cricket Club, the finalists will whisk, beat and cream their little hearts out in the hope of exchanging a sticky handshake with Paul Hollywood. Not a drop of sweat will upset the delicate balance of the ingredients. No outbursts of profanity will drift into the vanilla-scented air. But let’s add something extra. Let’s throw in a small child to assist each of the finalists. Now there’s a recipe for disaster.

I regularly don my rose-tinted spectacles and bake cakes with my two children. Generally we bake fairy cakes – no, we always bake fairy cakes – those fail-safe bundles of sponge that – like cockroaches – can survive pretty much anything. Oh how we skip around the kitchen with our teatowels (the only vintage print I have) and look forward to some quality time together as we mix and laugh and … Hold on. Here is the scene 5 minutes after we’ve started:

Breakfast bar

You will note the absence of children. The thrill of baking has left them in the time it takes for caramel to burn irremovably onto your best Le Creuset pan. Maybe this is a moment for the Head Baker to cherish, after all there is peace and quiet and no one is treading on my toes. But then as quickly as they left, they’re back and I await the inevitable. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

“Mummy, I’m hungry!”

“Have a banana.”

“I want to try what’s in there.”

“It’s not ready yet.”

“I want it!”

I toss them each a spoon of tooth-rotting, artery-blocking, salmonella-inducing cake mixture. I have sacrificed a dollop but the demons have not been appeased. They keep on coming back. Not once, not twice but over and over and over. My head spins with the glint of spoons and my Kirstie Allsopp façade starts to slip like an undercooked custard tart off its plate:

“I warn you – if you don’t stop asking to taste it I’m going to put it all in the bin!”*

(* There’s a sweary bit too that stays in my head.) Not a proud moment but, good lord, I see now where the bearded bloke in the Great British Bake Off was coming from when he tossed his baked Alaska in the pedal bin. Like the moment in Midsomer when a villager bursts into the cricket pavilion announcing there’s been a murder and John Nettles spills his tea, the joy of baking can come crashing to the ground in a tangle of Cath Kidston bunting.

When Mary Berry steps forward tonight to judge the finalists, I ask that she does not judge them on the end product. She must judge them on the journey, for, like me, they may have endured the 12 Labours of Hercules in order to produce their soggy bottomed Victoria sponge. And as the camera pans out from the GBBO tent, we know that baking isn’t really about china cake stands and Mary Berry’s twinset and pearls – it is all about licking the spoon.

Making cakes

Objects of desire

Fragile box

I have been slightly disturbed by a recent thread on a mums’ online group. The discussion was about the attractiveness of a local delivery man – his doorstep appeal. Sizzling, apparently. The type of fella you’d want to be answering the door to in your nightdress. Maybe letting your dressing gown slip open as you drowsily open the door at 7am. Desperate housewives having a bit of a giggle. All good, clean fun, right?

But turn the tables and is it so funny? Imagine a thread on a dads’ forum talking about a delivery woman: “Should’ve answered the door in my pants!” “Wouldn’t mind posting something in her box!” Suddenly it sounds less harmless and much seedier. Why is it okay for women to do to men what they don’t like done unto themselves? Is one of the benefits of being the ‘weaker’ sex that we can harangue men in a non-threatening and therefore acceptable way? Look at the ad with the Diet Coke man cutting the grass – tossing him the shaken can to open is equivalent to making a woman climb a ladder to look up her skirt. I’d like to see whether an advert like that would avoid complaints.

I’m not aiming criticism at the people who commented on the thread – I certainly want to be able to go into town without wearing a flak jacket – but it made me think about the double standards that operate in a society that is (hopefully) striving for equality. Perhaps turning the tables on men is a form of empowerment – an attempt to redress the balance of power by taking men on at their own game. After all, gender equality is about creating a level playing field. Do we therefore say, yes, it’s fine for women to talk about men based on their appearance and sex appeal alone. If we do, then at the same time we should be reaching for the topshelf in the newsagents and ripping the protective wrapping off the men’s magazines – right? It’s only fair after all. Either we agree that it’s acceptable to treat women and men like this, or we agree that no one should be reduced to the status of a mere sexual object.

That’s an awful lot of questions. I don’t have the answers and, yes, maybe I should take a hike and go and burn my bra someplace else. I am sure the delivery man – high up on his pedestal – is in no danger of being chased down and ravished by a pack of mums so to that extent it is harmless. But I wonder how he would feel if he read what was being said about him. Perhaps he’d be delighted and his testosterone levels would surge. But perhaps – and there’s a good chance – he would feel uncomfortable and more than a little embarrassed by the attention he’s received.