Saturday, January 28, 2012

Move Over Magnolia Bakery

I had put aside today to make cupcakes. Having not baked since I was 12 and my mother used to say each Friday night "Make us a Swiss Roll our Paul", I was excited to try it out again, and I wanted to capture some of the Bleecker Street glamour of the cupcake craze (which is now officially dead as I've got on board). What next Bleecker Street?

I got up early, consulted the book of cupcakes which I'd bought on Thursday (£20), and made a list. Luckily, Sainsburys had all the ingredients (£30), even orange blossom water (!). I didn't even mind when I got halfway home and realised I'd forgotten the icing sugar.

My recipe book was full of helpful hints like "weigh out the exact measurements - any deviation will result in disaster etc." so I was glad I had an electronic scale which gets measurements to the nearest micron. However, the batteries weren't working, so that was another trip out. "They cost £9 each," said the man in the jeweller's, rather shamefaced. I had to buy two (£18). Then I realised I'd need some tupperware to put them all in, so made the trip to a kitchen shop, where a special cup-cake holder thing was only £27.

I got home, feeling a bit lighter in the wallet, and by now slightly glum. However, I realised I didn't have one of those special cupcake baking trays. At this point, my fella, seeing my thunderous face, kindly offered to go out to the kitchen shop and buy me one (£11).

After that, it went quite well. I made a batch of banana/chocolate ones, and another batch of orange ones. Here's what the finished product looks like.

They're rather different from the picture in the recipe book. But at least they're edible.

And at roughly £30 a cupcake, they must be of good quality.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Born under a bad (street) sign

My mother directed me to a local news story - the boy who lived next door but one to us has just been imprisoned for four years over his involvement in the drug-related death of a young woman. He's not a boy now of course, but that's the way I remember him. Carrying out internet searches of the street where I grew up always makes me miserable - apart from the ultra low cost of houses there (the three bedroom, two bathroom home I grew up in recently sold for £75,000), there are news stories of gang violence, attempted rape and people being set on fire. I can only feel glad that when I left for university in 1990, I vowed never to go back.

It wasn't always like that. My parents, who moved there in the early 1970s, had to pass an interview with the local council. My mother said that being allocated the brand new council house was like "winning the lottery". Next door to us was a manager at the local Fine Fayre supermarket. Across the street was a teacher. Everyone worked. There was a high proportion of young married couples with kids. All of the children played happily in the street together - old-fashioned games like hopscotch and hide and seek. It was idyllic.

Then it went wrong - the unions instigated a series of particularly nasty strikes in the 1970s, resulting in power cuts, bodies not being buried and piles of litter in the streets. The rest of the country had had enough, voted in the Tories and Margaret Thatcher took the tough approach, instigating a number of changes, some which appeared to have the intentional goal of hurting working class people, others which had unintended consequences. The poor got less attention and help - "on your bike" said Norman Tebbit - and if you had the wherewithall to do so, there were opportunities out there. But for those people who found it more difficult to help themselves, their situation worsened.

People lost their jobs, the local miners went on strike for over a year, parents started getting divorced and car crimes and house robberies started to occur (it's depressing how many crimes on council estates often involve poor people robbing other poor people). Removal vans appeared in the street with increasing regularity - the manager and the teacher quietly moved away to buy houses in nicer neighbourhoods, rather than rent in an area that was going downhill. We never saw or heard from them again. And in their place - an increasing number of "problem families" - large numbers of children - some with behavioural difficulties, and different men going in and out. It's always harder to keep relationships going when you don't have any money or any hope.

My parents suffered. My Dad, who worked as a full-time bus-driver found that his pay couldn't keep up with price increases, despite his increasing hours spent doing overtime. So we sold the car and my mother carefully budgeted every meal. His pay became so pitiful that we had to have government assistance, only coming off it when my mother also got a full-time job. The days of mothers staying at home and looking after the children were becoming a fantasy for working-class families.

And then the drug trade appeared. By the 1990s, a policeman was posted at the gates of my old school, to stop the drug dealers from getting to the children. The girl next door used to say that she could get drugs at school any time she wanted. Living on a council estate started to feel less like winning the lottery and more like a prison sentence. So it's not really surprising that my street now comes across as a dystopian nightmare in the news. Thanks Maggie.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Six Year Olds Won't Go To Rebab

My fella's niece takes dance classes so last weekend we went over to St Helens to see her (and several hundred other people) performing at their local theatre. It was nice to see so many young people (all girls) involved in "the arts", rather than getting pregnant (which was the main hobby of the girls I went to school with), though it was a shame there were no boys involved. Billy Elliot is still very much the exception. Although towards the end, some of the Dads put on a (comedy) performance. They'd wisely put the little good-looking one front centre. And I'm ashasmed to say that that was my favourite bit.

Who'd be a parent these days - it's so expensive. As well as paying for the weekly classes, all the constumes (some quite complex) had to be paid for, and there were announcements banning photography and mobile phones during the performance, presumably so that professionally done photos could be purchased by family members afterwards. The man sitting next to me had his phone out and ushers asked him twice to turn it off - both times he just hid it under his coat for 10 seconds. (I considered it a personal triumph that I didn't scream "JUST TURN IT OFF!!" at him.) But worryingly, he did not return to his seat for the second half. Maybe the ushers decided to beat him up in the interval, or perhaps he'd had enough.

Whilst the performances were good, some of the song choices were slightly odd. Some of the youngest girls - aged I'm guessing about 6-7, did an Amy Winehouse tribute. This involved them all dressed as Amy Winehouse, complete with huge beehive wigs, and singing "They tried to make me go to rehab, I said 'no, no, no.'" Not exactly age-appropriate. Me and my fella had to restrain laughter during that number. We have been trying to think of good follow-ups for next time - perhaps they could do Sister Morphine or Frankie Says Relax.

There was also liberal (and unnecessary) use of dry ice - one unfortunate ballet dancer was positioned right next to the ice machine and every now and again during one number, a big gust of dry ice would emerge from between her legs, with the machine making a mocking parping sound. Again - we were both jamming our hands into mouths for that dance.

There was a group of older (40+) women who did a few dance numbers. My eldest sister-in-law, who was present, thought they were great and talked about joining them next year. That was until my fella (rather cruelly) referred to them as the Baby Janes. She's gone off the idea now.

I'm not sure we'll be invited back next year.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Girls will (now always) be Girls

I've written about my love of Lego, stemming back to my childhood, on this blog before. And this Christmas I enjoyed building Lego spaceships with for my nephews. Every couple of months I receive the Lego catalogue, although this month was a bit surprised to see that there was a pink pull-out section in the middle which was aimed squarely at girls.

This new range, called Lego Friends, features female lego figures who are more shapely, with breasts, big hair and curvy bodies. Each one has a set of interests - one's into animals, another likes singing and dancing, and another one like organising parties. You get the idea. Apart from the one who is a bit of a science geek, they're all stereotypically feminine characters, and the sets come in soft pastel colours. There are no boy figures. But as Lego has been marketed mainly as a boys' toy for years, boys can buy the pirate ships, the space ships, the fire engines and tractors and digggers and so on...

Not everyone wants to be friends with the Lego Friends though. A petition at against Lego Friends currently has just over 3000 signatures. But there are also a lot of people who love the Lego Friends. This blog, called Feminists Freak Out Over Lego Friends, is dedicated to "shedding light on their omissions, skewed facts and images." And at Gizmodo, a cool and very butch-looking space-ship is built out of the Lego Friends blocks. The site claims that "feminists criticising the new Lego Friends sets just don’t get it."

People against Lego Friends argue that the set is restrictive, both to boys and girls. Girls are encouraged to confirm to feminine stereotypes, whereas it would be very difficult for any self-respecting boy to want to play with such a girly Lego set (personally, I would have loved some of the Lego Friends sets when I was a child, as long as there had been male figures to play with as well as the female ones). By narrowly defining what boys and girls are supposed to find interesting and the way they're supposed to play, the Lego Friends set ultimately limit possibilities for children - and potentially will result in a generation of very narrowly gender-defined adults who will have very conservative views about how men and women should act. God forbid it you don't "fit in".

I didn't fit in when I was growing up. I sometimes played with my sister's dolls (and when the two boys I hung out with at school found out, they refused to play with me ever again). I read far too many Enid Blyton books about upper-class girls' schools, and I played ballet music on the piano. I wasn't totally girly - I also had a lot of boy-geek interests - I had books about how to be a spy or detective, I liked reading about the solar system, I had a microscope, and I was into Dungeons and Dragons and writing my own computer games on my Spectrum 48K. And I played with Lego a lot. In the 70s/80s, Lego was still pretty gender neutral - you just bought blocks and created what you wanted. This advert, from the early 80s, shows how Lego wasn't seen as a boys' toy.

So while I did occasionally encounter hostility for not being the most masculine of boys, on the whole, my parents and peers didn't make too much of a big deal about it. I would hate to be a child again in 2012 - because even if you have very accepting parents, society expects boys and girls to act in very different ways from a much earlier age - and it's harder to get away with being gender-neutral or liking things marketed to the opposite sex. I've noticed it myself when shopping for my nephews - most toys are segregated into boys/girls sections in toyshops - and my nephews seemed able from quite an early age to figure out which ones were for them.

In some ways this seems surprising - especially considering that there have been moves to reduce sexism and gender stereotyping in wider society. I don't view the 1970s as a time of sexual equality. I think about sneaking downstairs at night-time to watch the Benny Hill Show and Miss World, and the mad housewife on the Shake and Vac Advert.

Actually though, 2012 doesn't seem to have improved that much.

The sexism and stereotyping of women is still there - for several reasons. First - it's validated by a jokey "lads", ironic stance. Second, men are objectified too (though not as much as women), so that makes it OK apparently. Yay equality!

Third, the left-wing political imperative to reduce sexism, is trumped again and again by capitalism and advertising. Having spent the last week in New York - the home of aggressive advertising, I saw even more adverts featuring idealised, stereotyped male and female bodies than I do in the UK. I always leave NYC feeling a bit inadequate - and part of that is due to the relentless advertising which is designed to make you feel miserable about yourself so you'll buy stuff.

The makers of Lego Friends have argued that the new set is based on anthropological research which examined how boys and girls play - and that they're giving children what they want. Defenders of Lego Friends have also pointed to other toys like Bratz, and My Little Pony - which have a similar aesthetic and are popular with girls. In fact girls' toys
in general have been redesigned to become more girly over time. So it's perhaps not surprising that girls like the Lego Friends - those girls are already growing up in a world where the concepts associated with Lego Friends are already marketed at them, and normalised for them. Imagine that for seven years you mocked a child every time they ate vanilla ice-cream and praised them every time they ate chocolate ice-cream, and then gave them a choice of a vanilla or a chocolate biscuit. Which would they chose?

And market forces dicate that you should sell stuff to people that they will buy. So it's very easy to simply go with the flow - and keep churning out increasingly girly, pink stuff for girls, and violent action figures and spaceships for boys.

I don't believe that children are completely blank slates and we can turn them into anything - I've noticed that my nephews tended to be very interested in trains, diggers and dinosaurs even before they could speak. They are typical little boys. I suspect most children do tend towards gender stereotypes - although I believe that they aren't as far towards the stereotypes as the toymakers would have us believe. My nephews also engaged in less masculine behaviour at various points when they were younger. But most kids generally go with the stereotyped toys, just because it's easier. It's like being ambidextrous or bisexual - you just end up being right-handed or living a heterosexual life - because it's easier that way, and most of us go with the flow.

How do I feel about the Lego Friends? When I saw the Lego Friends set in my catalogue, I thought "Oh Lego, why have you betrayed me!" But my fella (who always plays a great devil's advocate) pointed out that I'd quite happily bought the Star Wars Lego sets for my nephews this Christmas and hadn't complained about gender stereotyping there. My (rather poor) response was that stereotyping when it's done on boys isn't as bad because boys' toys tend to emphasise power - so that'll help to prime them to get powerful positions in society.

But he's right. If I'm going to get annoyed about Lego Friends, I should also be annoyed about all other toys, including the way that the other Lego sets are marketed at boys.

Anyway, I've signed the petition. I doubt it'll change anything. Feminists have such a bad PR these days that even the word "feminist" seems to evoke visions of angry, irrational, man-hating lesbians.

What the Lego Friends represents to me then - is a kind of final rejection of feminism - and a triumph of the New World Order - where men are men, and women are women.

Can I be your friend?

Friday, January 06, 2012

Back in the 1990s/early 2000s, before I had a blog, I used to have a website where I posted up reviews of some of my favourite tv programs and films - the trashier and campier the better. The website is long gone, but I still have those reviews on my computer. Here's a review of my favourite Andy Warhol film, Women in Revolt.

Women in Revolt

"This incest has gone on long enough! We've been living in sin darling. And I'm sick of it. Sick and fed up. Of you. And ALL MEN! How do you like THEM apples?"

In 1967 damaged, disenfranchised, groovy, Valerie Solanis wrote the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, and for, her next trick went on to shoot Andy Warhol, thereby earning a lot more than those cliched 15 minutes of fame. The central thesis of the book was that the male is a "biological incomplete female...a walking abortion". And with the invention of sperm banks, there is no longer any need for men. Valerie gave a copy of her Manifesto (and her play Up Your Ass) to Warhol's crowd of vampires, who had a good laugh and then made sure that she was firmly, irrevocably socially excluded. People have been shot for a lot less.

Three years later, we have "Andy Warhol presents a film by Paul Morrissey", entitled "Women In Revolt". The titular women are actually Warhol's "super-stars" who started life as men: Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. In the film, the three women are pivotal players in a women's movement, who decide to give up men, become lesbians and abandon their careers. Their group is called PIG (Politically Involved Girls). I have a feeling that this film owes a LOT to the SCUM Manifesto and poor Valerie.

Like all the other Warhol/Morrissey films, it's badly put together, badly acted, with poor sound and film quality. Actually, "acting" is probably an unfair word to use as many of these films seem to have improvised dialogue - which isn't neccesarily a bad thing, when done properly (it isn't here though). In many ways this film is almost unwatchable, especially the first time you view it. But give it a chance, make judicious use of "fast-forward" and you'll be rewarded.

What is it about plotlines that feature three camp women (and my tendency to review them)? First it was Valley of the Dolls, then Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I even based my own soap opera, Doll Soup around three females. So it seems only fitting that Candy, Jackie and Holly should be featured here. Candy is my favourite. She plays a classy, jaded Long Island socialite who wears a sleek black turban-hat in many of her scenes, and seems to be the only one who is actually acting. (At least she has good diction, meaning that most of her words are easy to understand.) Candy has a strong jawline and perfect poise. She's beautiful. Her tired, laid-back style is perfect, and apart from the scene where she is sexually compromised by a film agent, her scenes are the most fun to watch. Whether it's berating her incestuous brother, lording it over the other members of PIG, or modelling as a "blonde on a bum trip" (or even a bum on a blonde trip as one cast member succinctly puts it), she's the ultimate scene stealer. I love her.

Jackie plays a "frigid, middle-class" woman, with frizzy unattractive hair (long before the invention of conditioner), a habit of talking out of the corner of her mouth, and an earnest, confused way of speaking. She's the lynch-pin of PIG, and eventually the one who will betray them all (by using PIG money to have sex with male prositutes). My favourite Jackie scene is near the beginning of the film where she disgustedly sprays air-freshener onto the arm-pits, crotch and bottom areas of her naked male "slave".

I'm afraid I wasn't too impressed with the trashy character played by Holly Woodlawn, who actually scared me several times. However, her contribution to the film is severely marred by the fact that she is playing a nymphomaniac who often disrupts scenes by attempting to have sex with other characters. Her delivery seems to be full of screamed lines which are hard to understand and apt to induce a headache. When she ended up as a drunken street-person, urinating in doorways and falling over in the snow, I was applauding.

The idea of getting men to play the revolting (in both senses of the word) women is interesting. Like so many of these "art-house" films, the "message", if indeed there is one, is never very clear. Was Warhol having a little joke at the expense of the Women's Movement (the same could even be argued of Solanis)? Or was he subverting the concept of "women" or "the oppressed" by having transvestites (traditionally one of the most oppressed identities in our lovely western society) play the lead roles? There's a scene early on where Jackie tries (unsuccessfully) to explain the "movement" to one of the many anonymous, passive men who litter the film. The camera goes for a close-up and it's a big mistake as everything goes out of focus. Was this merely a case of bad camera work and lazy editing, or it the temporary poor focus supposed to be a commentary on Jackie's ability to make sense of the women's movement? Am I trying to read too much into these things again? I think the answer to all these questions is "yes".

Not a lot actually seems to happen in the film, apart from the women sitting around, complaining about men and exchanging horror stories along the lines of "I was raped when I was two!", "A policeman invaded my house and sucked my toes!" etc. Their most direct protest occurs when two of their group take to the streets and attempt to administer an unwanted enema to a man who's digging up the road. The inevitable comparisons to John Waters always ensue...

I particularly liked Jackie's scene with "Mr America", a muscle-bound young man. When, in the middle of a painful, humiliating sexual encounter Mr America asks if she is coming, Jackie comes back with "I think I'm going". Also amusing is the final sequence with Jackie screaming abuse at her baby, Holly as a falling-down drunk, and Candy, finally having made it all the way to Hollywood, where she gets a grilling from a newspaper reporter which ends in them both scuffling on the floor.

Great Lines
Jackie pulls Candy's hair
Candy: Ow! That is not a wig!

Holly: But women will be FREE!

Candy: So don't tell me where I go and what I do. I'll go to each and every meeting I want to. You've made me old before my time!

Holly: They're gonna think we're lesbians!
Jackie: No! They're not gonna think we're lesbians Holly! A school-teacher and a model? Those are lesbians?

The girls are trying to get a reluctant Candy to join the cause.
Betty: Do you know what happened to me?
Candy: Well, how would I know?

Jackie: Well women's lib says that we should have our say too!
Mr America: Fuck you. That's the whole trouble with you broads. You don't stop talking.

Jackie: Women's Liberation has shown me just WHO I AM and just what I can be!

Holly: Mother-fucker! I hate you! I'm tired of looking at you. Tired! Arsehole! Men! I hate men! You! I hate you!

Candy: I'm young. I want to live. We're rich. We're famous. We're beautiful....and miserable!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

1930s hats are the next big thing apparently

Back in Lancaster again, which always looks and feels a lot smaller after NYC. Ironically, because Lancaster (population 46,000) has a cathedral, it's a city, whereas Greenwich Village - which has towering residential apartments of many floors, gets to be a village. Everyone wants to be something they ain't.

One disconcerting aspect of being in America for me is that people talk louder than they do in the UK. When my fella and I are out in public, we mumble to each other so that nobody within a mile's distance will be able to hear our conversation and realise how weird we are. Unfortunately, this frequently means that even we can't hear each other, so if anybody did successfully eavsedrop on us, all they'd hear would be "what?"

On the other hand, whenever we hear anybody else say anything audible in public, we quietly make fun of them. NYC is therefore an endless source of opportunity, as everybody is so articulate and interesting - and they all do everything bigger, as if they're in a play and want to ensure that even the people in the back row get their money's worth. They like the attention, and really, it would be churlish of me not to give it to them.

What is weird though is the practice of talking or thinking aloud, which appears to mark out a large difference between British and American people. We passed a man searching for something in his wallet. "Where's my damn money!!" he shouted out loudly, voicing his thoughts. And when my fella was innocently crossing the road, another man shouted "You're all walking into the path of death!" So, sometimes, I felt like I had wandered into an episode of the Twilight Zone having temporarily being granted the ability to hear everybody's thoughts. (One channel was showing a Twilight Zone marathon over the New Year period, and that was actually an episode.)

We spent a lot of time on this holiday walking up and down Bleeker Street, which is full of interesting little shops. I had wanted to see the Magnolia Bakery - which is credited as kicking off the "cupcake craze" which has even got to Lancaster. I was a bit disappointed to see that it looked a bit shabby from the outside - and had net curtains that made it look like a rundown cafe in a British seaside resort.

Another cupcake place called Molly's was nicer - although every time we went in, we had to get take-out as it was so busy (and we went in a lot). And the lady serving kept validating our choices "that's my favourite one!", which is a bit much when all you're buying is a cupcake.

I noticed several shops on Bleeker Street that were selling 1930s style hats, so I suspect that once this trend works it way round the block, that's what I'll be wearing in 2015. Despite liking the hats, I didn't buy one because had I done so, I would have immediately killed the trend.

This sinful billboard was right by where we were staying.

Not of God! Not Christian! Dark-sided!

I saw it and was instantly morally corrupted. I think I saw those two chaps at the gym I used while I was there. In fact, everyone looked like that at my gym (except me). The effect was even more demoralising than usual.

But when I got home I had an email from someone who had seen me in a cafe in Chelsea and recognised me from this blog.

It wasn't Andersen Cooper. But I'm still pleased.