Strictly 2015 – the year they broke the script

I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing since 2007 when, whilst channel hopping, I happened upon Alesha Dixon dancing with Matthew Cutler. I knew the format of the show but not knowing much about celebrity, and still less about ballroom dancing, I struggled to work out which was the pro and which the celebrity. From then on, I was hooked. Each September, as the nights draw in and I know the gloom of winter is approaching, I look forward to my weekly dose of sparkly, besequined escapism. I know it’s tosh. I know ballroom dancing is sexist. I know it should be fluff but boy do I take it seriously and so it seems do thousands of others.

Over the years, I’ve grown used to the sense that there is a story playing out that’s gently scripted. The producers pick the celebrities so we get certain characters in each show and then steer things to produce highs, lows, dramas and online spats. We get the comedy act, who we obligingly vote for until Blackpool week because we want to see Ann Widdecombe dragged around the floor like a giant yellow dishcloth, but not at the expense of someone who really can dance. There are those clearly destined to go out in the first few weeks as lacking any dancing ability, comedy value, or even vaguely memorable characteristics. There are the clear mid-tablers, who sometimes provide a sort of shock-exit when they lose out to the comedy act. Then there are the genuine shock exits (Pixie Lott, Helen George) who end up in impossible dance-offs, or the people like Scott Marsden who start brilliantly and run out steam. And there are those who snatch victory from better dancers just by doing Charlestons (yes Chris Hollins, I still haven’t forgiven you).

Through all this, Craig Revel Horwood plays the harsh but fair pantomime villain who possibly has a heart in there somewhere. Darcey provides helpful critique; Len spots fleckerls and Bruno just sort of madly gesticulates on the end of the judges’ table (they put him there so he can only hit one judge, and since it’s Len and he’s been getting increasingly curmudgeonly nobody really minds. Except Len).

The problem this year has been a growing sense that something’s gone wrong with the script. Usually you can enjoy the story whilst being vaguely aware of but not minding the steering. This year the steering has felt much more like manipulation and the story has become much darker and less enjoyable. The characters haven’t been doing what the producers want and their attempts to haul them back into line have revealed something almost rotten underneath the greasepaint.

It started gently enough, Carol – easy cannon fodder, minor character, should be voted out 2nd or 3rd – turned out to be incredibly likeable and when paired with Pasha saw off five other dancers. Jeremy, comedy turn, let’s put him on a plastic horse and dress him up like Woody from Toy Story. And make him dance a tango. To Go West. No, I’m not joking. And neither really was Jeremy, who it turned out could probably dance reasonably well, if the producers had had the grace to treat him with some dignity.

Then there was Peter, destined to be the star turn. The one who could really dance, though not trained in ballroom, a shoe-in for the final. Except that he plateaued, his technique stopped improving and whatever the judges did, the audience weren’t really convinced. So they put him in the DO, against then 4-time DO survivor Jamelia (also not in the script, you’re only meant to survive three at most). And then she really departed from the script by out-dancing him, getting voted out by the judges anyway, and causing a media outcry amongst people who didn’t like her enough to vote for her but didn’t want her booted out in a DO when she’d danced well.

But the one who really broke the script was boyband member Jay McGuinness – hairy, walks a bit like a caveman, too shy to talk properly on camera, spent the first two weeks shaking. Definitely supposed to go out early. Except he really could move. Aliona got his hair cut and changed the way he walked. In week 2 he did a lovely waltz that the judges praised to the heavens, so his nerves eased up. And in week 3 he did THAT JIVE. A jive that many people see the need to capitalise as a shorthand way to distinguish it from all other jives before (except maybe Jill’s). And from then onwards the judges were stuffed and didn’t know what to do with someone who became odds-on favourite in week 3 and then stayed there.

There on in, things got sour, so I have some suggestions as to what to do next year, in the hope that we keep SCD as the amazing show it is, but make it more escapist, and less Grimm tale.

1 Keep Tess and Claudia. I know one is bland and the other quirky. It works. Leave it.

2 Sack two of the judges. I don’t care which two. If you can’t decide, pick them out of a hat, they’ve all pissed me off at some point. Inform the remaining two that telling someone they have no personality is just bullying. It’s a light entertainment programme for fun and watching people get torn to pieces is neither fun nor entertaining.

3 You know the rule book that you threw out for the show dances? Where did you find it? Because you haven’t bothered with it much this year. Work out the rules and stick to them. FOR EVERYONE. If Gleb can’t lift Anita in the rumba, then Kevin (or a backing dancer) can’t hoick Kellie onto a table during a VW. I might not know a reverse fleckerl when I see it, but I can spot that.

4 Don’t give primetime TV slots to siblings for them to comment on finalists. If you do, make sure they don’t say the opposition was over-marked in the semis. Other people get sacked for less. And look up “conflict of interest” whilst you’re at it.

5 Replace Anton as a pro dancer. He will never find another woman to dive backwards off a stage into his arms. Give him choreography corner. I like Anton but he resembles fortified wine – enjoyable in small doses but if you keep glugging it you start to feel sick.

6 Give Brendan a partner that’s good who he likes. He’s looked pissed off for years. If that doesn’t work, give him choreography corner with Anton in 2017

7 Go back to basics. Watch Jay and Aliona’s showdance. He’s all in white. After the entrance there are no props. They just dance. And they won like that, despite continual negative comments; the subtle and not so subtle digs on the show and on ITT and the remarks about his face that would have been laughable had they not been at root cruel. The public have spoken. They want people who perform well in the Ten Dances, not a manic Lindy Hop that however skilled, was not strictly speaking ballroom.

8 And on that note, make sure that in the final, couples have to dance one Latin and one ballroom to start with, not the specialty dances. If they want to do those, they can do them in the show dance, where there are no rules.

As it was, during the finals this year I switched over to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because it lived up to its name whereas Strictly had become too predictable and I knew the scores before the couples danced. I want to get back to escapism and if Strictly is riddled with unfairness, nepotism and spite, I might as well walk out of the front door into the dark, wet reality of a British winter where I can find all those in spades.

And in the end, remember this. As Terry Pratchett used to argue, stories have a way of writing (and righting) themselves no matter how much you try to interfere with them. By continually sniping at Jay, the judges somehow made him both the bookies’ favourite and yet an underdog too. If there’s one thing the British love more than a favourite, it’s an underdog, so as soon as Craig said “you had no personality”, Jay was certain to win. I don’t know what the producers and judges were up to but I do know that Jay and Aliona got their happy ending in spite of it.

Mum’s the word

On It Takes Two, that font of wisdom Richard Madeley predicted that Jay just might win because of the “mum vote”. Since then I’ve heard it said that Jay won because of the granny vote, and because of the teenage girl vote. To which I have to say: so what? Why is the female vote, across all ages, perceived as less valid and less worthy? I voted for Jay because I liked watching him dance, not because I want to mother him (he has a perfectly good mother of his own) or because I fancy him or because my hormones told me to. Women can actually make rational decisions about who to vote for. So pack in the denigration of an entire sex by insinuating that our decision to vote is based on something less worthy than men’s decisions are. It’s 2015. We can vote. Deal with it.

 

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Strictly Come Dancing: fake it until you fail?

For those not in the know, Strictly Come Dancing is a light entertainment show in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers and taught a new dance each week. Every Saturday, one of the couples is voted off until one couple is crowned the winner. It seems like something light, sparkly, spangly and fluffy but it’s syndicated worldwide; can be used to revamp and relaunch sometimes flagging careers and is the favourite of the gutter press as some of the world’s most beautiful people occasionally start swapping partners both on and off the dance floor. In that context, the words “voted off” should raise alarm bells for it can indeed become highly controversial.

The process of voting is quite convoluted and as such perhaps not as robust as it might be. First each of the four judges award each dance a mark out of 10, to give a possible total of 40. Couples are then ranked on a scoreboard and the couple at the top are given the highest mark and so on down to the bottom couple who should in theory receive  one mark (though the BBC are not good at maths and this doesn’t always happen). Then, to give audience participation, the public vote. The couples are ranked again and again the top scoring couple get the highest mark and so on down. Judges’ marks and the public scores are then combined to give an overall scoreboard.

You could at that point just wave goodbye to the person with the lowest number of points overall. However, the problem producers encountered with this format is that the fickle public don’t always vote for good dancers and sometimes, as in the case of John Sargeant, deliberately vote for people with the dancing ability of a broom pole so left to their own devices, they might give the glitter ball to the likes of Anne Widdecombe. To prevent good dancers from getting kicked out too early the dance off was introduced in which the bottom two couples both dance again and the judges then save the couple who dance the best.

The system has always thrown some curve balls and at times the judges do have to make difficult decisions. Last year Simon Webbe was up against Pixie Lott and should in theory have been toast. Simon was a great dancer but Pixie had fairly consistently beaten him, until that week in which Simon scored 35 for an American Smooth which contained an obvious mistake whilst Pixie scored the same for a Cha Cha Cha which the judges criticised for poor technique and illegal lifts. Thus all Simon had to do was correct his obvious mistake whilst Pixie, to up her score, would have had to refine her technique and choreograph out some lifts, all in the same evening. It was not to be and Len sent Pixie home, arguing “I have to judge this on this one dance that I have seen – not what has been in the past, [or] what my expectations are in the future.  I tell you – this is hard as a judge but harder as person”.

Bear that quote in mind because it helps explain what happened last Saturday at Blackpool. Jamelia, with a score of 31 for a pretty passable quickstep ended up in the DO against Peter Andre with 29 for something that might have been a jive in another universe were jigging around and doing one of your old pop routines counts as a jive. The BBC’s problem is that it has created a small army of armchair experts who know what gapping is and who know about kicks and flicks. It already seemed that Andre was over-marked since Craig argued his dance was “at the bottom of the pack of jives” this season. Len gave Peter an 8 whereas in week 3 he scored Jay 9 for a jive the like of which none of us has really seen from one of the celebrities before – and I mean that in a good way. Unless Len is using a Richter scale or some other non-linear scoring system it’s hard to see how there was only one point between Jay’s and Peter’s dances.

Once it was announced that Jamelia and Peter were in the DO it was apparent that the judges were between a rock and a hard place. Jamelia had already survived a record four DOs and so was demonstrably not popular with the public but had danced better than Peter. Peter has some talent but that was not his dance and even with what looked like an inflated score he was worse than Jamelia. So for him to win the DO, in accordance with the rules stated by Len last series, Jamelia was going to have to drop points whereas Peter was going to have to gain them. To the majority of us watching at home it looked instead as if Jamelia upped her game and Peter remained the same. And yet Bruno, Darcey and Craig voted to keep Peter on the show.

The BBC might have thought that was that. Send the unpopular dancer who was never going to win home, keep their superstar signing who most of the time can dance. However, they found themselves in the midst of a storm without any apparent knowledge as to why. The BBC seemed to have forgotten that even Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness. This was never really about Jamelia, it was about the fairness and transparency of a process. People become invested in Strictly. It’s what gets us through winter in a northern climate. It’s sparkly and fun and perfect escapist television. And what we expect with escapist fun is a sense of fair play. After all, it isn’t really escapism if skulduggery is seen to be done without any redress.

In this the BBC had a perfect storm. It’s been apparent for years that the producers could manipulate the outcome if they so chose. Each year they pick a comedy act, forgetting that comedy should arise naturally. But you go along with it, and vote to keep weaker dancers in at least until Wembley/ Blackpool week, because who wouldn’t want to see Russell Grant fired out of a cannon. There have been rumours before about fixes because some dance, music and costume choices seem odd at best. If you don’t like a celebrity, it must be hard not to ask them to dance the rumba whilst wearing a sequined bin bag, to You Spin Me Right Round. If I had the power to do that, I’m not sure I’d resist either.

To add to the storm and the rumours, SCD bosses have never really been open with their audience. They won’t give out public voting figures even after a series ends and despite FOI requests. And because of this, since they introduced online voting, I’ve only voted via this free method. Added to which although it’s pretty obvious that the Sunday results show is filmed straight after the live Saturday show, the BBC go through an odd charade in which they don’t lie outright, but do refer to “last night” and “on Saturday” repeatedly during the Sunday show and refer to “Sunday” repeatedly afterwards even though most of us know the result is available on spoiler sites around 10:30pm on Saturday.

So in a situation in which you have a vague but tolerable sense of some manipulation and lack of transparency, to find out just how ugly SCD’s face might be underneath all the makeup and sequins is something of a shock. Jamelia was obviously the better dancer on the night so why then keep Peter? Was it just because he’s been better in the series? In which case how do we know what the rules are? And why force celebs to go through a DO when in the end whatever they do doesn’t matter?

To compound the situation, the BBC published a blog by the studio director who explained to us “how a large scale entertainment show like Strictly Come Dancing – The Results is made” thereby making me feel like a 1950s housewife being told not to worry my pretty head about things I don’t really understand. Len was then wheeled out on It Takes Two to argue that he’d seen improvement in Peter’s dance and that that is why Peter was saved. Even though on the night Len said he would have saved Jamelia and in fact it was the other three judges who apparently spotted this miraculous improvement.

Whilst this is not really about Jamelia, it is about Peter. Like him or loath him he is an international star with a huge PR machine behind him. Once it’s clear that the BBC don’t respect its audience, treat you like children and are not transparent, you do start to wonder what hold someone like Peter has over them and quite what terms might be in his contract. I’ve long thought that the most sincere and real part of Peter is his fake tan. I’d rather not think so ill of Strictly, too.

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What You and Yours did

On Tuesday morning Radio 4’s Today programme trailered You and Yours with a rant that was a masterclass in anti-cycling propaganda. “Should they have insurance like everyone else?” we were asked, and had we seen news coverage of a young child being dragged along after being hit by a cyclist on the pavement. Did we think cyclists ought to take a test before being allowed on the road and were we aware that “cyclist casualties have risen in recent years as the amount of cycling has increased”.

The statement about insurance is deliberately inflammatory and factually incorrect. It is intended to create a Them and Us divide (a little ironic perhaps on a programme call You and Yours. Perhaps it should be changed to You and Yours and Let’s Point at Other People). It’s saying “We are everyone and cyclists are other and different from all of us”. But not everyone has insurance. People who don’t drive or cycle aren’t necessarily insured. Children don’t have insurance. It’s not, in the UK, compulsory to have insurance when you walk out of your front door. Car drivers have to have cover but that is because they are in charge of something that on average weighs 1300kg and can legally travel at speeds in excess of 110kph. That speed and mass combined gives them much greater kinetic energy than a cyclist or pedestrian and consequently the ability to do much more damage far more frequently.

In addition, whilst it is not compulsory for cyclists to have insurance many of them do. It’s quite difficult to get home insurance or any kind of 3rd party cover that doesn’t insure you against an accident on a bike. Insure yourself against someone breaking into your house and stealing all your worldly goods and insurers are so confident you won’t do much damage that they chuck in 3rd party cycling insurance with it. Join British Cycling or the CTC and you’ll be insured. Take part in an organised cycling event and the organisers will have you insured. Contrast that with the estimated 1.2 million uninsured cars on the road in 2013 and you can see that it really is not as simple as cyclists being uninsured and “everyone else” being insured.

The incident with the cyclist hitting a toddler was horrific and should never have happened. But the use of the story here is again inflammatory. Contrast the way that story was used with the reporting of Jeffrey James who crashed his Audi outside a school injuring 9 people, 5 of them children. James had a coughing fit and hit the accelerator rather than the brake. Somehow this resulted in him flipping his Audi onto its roof. The reporting does not condemn him and crucially doesn’t ask why people are in charge of vehicles near schools if something as simple as a coughing fit can cause such carnage. You might be thinking well this was an accident whereas cycling on the pavement is deliberately doing something illegal. In which case you might want to consider the case of Matthew Trvdon in Cardiff, who deliberately used his van as a weapon (though in that case the outgroup is the mentally ill. Motorists again are not targeted as collectively responsible).

As for the test, over 80% of adult cyclists have a driving licence thus they are versed in the Highway Code as much as any other driver ever is. There is bikeability/ cycling proficiency training available but a test isn’t compulsory for the same reason insurance isn’t compulsory – you cannot do as much damage. But the mention of the test is an important rhetorical device because it leads into the question about cycling casualties. By referring to cyclists not taking a test the implication is that they are the ones not trained and therefore the ones more likely to be the root cause of a collision, in contrast with the nice trained, insured driver who was also involved. Citing accidents as if they are part and parcel of problems caused by cyclists puts the responsibility with those cyclists rather than examining what’s actually happening. Logically, if numbers of cyclists goes up, collisions involving cyclists will go up, because there are more of them. You’d get more collisions if you put more drivers on the road too. The stat cited on the You and Yours website that 19,000 cyclists were killed or injured in 2013 is fairly useless without context. Which has gone up by a greater proportion, numbers of cyclists or accidents? Could it be that there is safety in numbers and accidents increase at a slower rate? And who causes these collisions? The fact is that in the majority of collisions involving cyclists and drivers it is the driver who is at fault. Without that context what we have is just more of the same incendiary, poorly researched and unanalysed nonsense.

I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the entire You and Yours broadcast. I like my blood pressure where it is and I listened to enough to know that no-one was likely to make an effort to counteract the damage done by the advertising for the programme. #YourandYours was trending on Twitter, much of it from incandescent people who happen to travel by bike (see what I did there? Good isn’t it. The BBC don’t have a monopoly on manipulating language to their advantage). I’ve yet to see a response from anyone involved in the programme apologising for using rabble-rousing language against vulnerable road users, but Rajeev Gupta, producer and reporter on the programme, came out with “Wonderful that #youandyours is top trending… Our phone in on cycling hit a nerve with the UK”.

Now, it’s not that hitting a nerve is wrong per se, it’s just that as a goal on its own it’s inadequate. Katie Hopkins frequently hits a nerve, generally by making attacks on vulnerable groups in society who already face prejudice. Her “cockroaches” rant directed at immigrants brought her dangerously close to 1930s European rhetoric and brings me dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law. In contrast, when Alan Rusbridger hit a nerve by supporting Edward Snowden he attacked one of the most established and entrenched powers the world has ever seen. It’s easy to hit a nerve when attacking a small nervous mammal and if you’re the the one doing the hitting you take a minimal risk. When going for a bear, whilst it might be sensitive to attack, the consequences for the attacker are rather greater. It’s why people don’t often have the courage to do it.

I suggest that in future, if You and Yours wants to hit a nerve, it picks a better target. How about going for drivers? No. Why not? After all, the majority of them admit to law breaking in one way or another. They’re so keen on speeding they find ways to spot speed cameras and post information about their whereabouts. They kill and maim, often with impunity. Lorry driver Joao Lopes killed twice because his vision was poor and he didn’t wear his glasses to drive, a fact the police admit they failed to investigate first time around. Put “car crashes into kitchen” into an internet search engine and you’re spoiled for choice with stories about drivers who failed to see entire houses and then drove into them. Drivers are so shit at so many things that the richest of them have specialist lawyers to get them out of these situations. Why doesn’t You and Yours examine that?

Sadly I don’t expect journalists on Radio 4 to start this kind of investigating. They are very much from the Hopkins’ school of picking on outgroups because they think those groups will not bite back. It would take a certain amount of bravery to tackle a group that holds more power and to question entrenched attitudes. They should however take care when attacking the small and nervous. As Terry Pratchett was wont to point out, sometimes a small mammal turns out to be a mongoose.

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Post-election blues

Other than the election result, there are two things keeping me awake at night. One, my horse’s saddle doesn’t fit and two, I’ve been given notice to leave the home that I rent. The saddle very much comes under first world problems. It bothers me because I’m responsible for my horse’s welfare and have been working him in a saddle that is restrictive, although his previous owner spent a lot of money on it and had it professionally fitted. Despite my concerns, I can see that in the grand scheme of things it’s not a bad problem to have. The problem with my home is much more serious and something you might hope would be encountered only in the developing world not the first world. Sadly this is not the case. Even in supposedly developed countries those who rent are second-class citizens and security of tenure is a distant dream.

Trying to find out my rights as a tenant, I came across this little gem. In case the page gets edited, here’s a screen shot of the text I find particularly worrying:

Renting_cropped

So according to this advice “renting is always temporary anyways” , I should feel sorry for my landlady/ landlord, and knowing that at any time you might be given two months notice to get out is not a huge problem because “I guarantee the stress of having to sell to kill debt is a lot greater than having to find a new place to rent”. It’s difficult to know where to start with this, but I’ll go through point by point.

I relocated for my job. I have a two-year contract. I had hoped that I would be able to live in one place for those two years. It doesn’t on the face of it seem like a big thing to ask. Instead, one year into the contract I find I have to move. This means paying another agency fee; paying removal expenses; using up annual leave to pack and move; going through that awkward time between one deposit going out and another coming back and all in the knowledge that wherever I move, I will have at most 12 months security.

As someone who rents, I find myself on the hunt for cardboard boxes. Not just now. I mean every time I think there’s an opportunity to get hold of a strong, fairly large cardboard box I take it, both the opportunity and the box. I stash cardboard. I am particularly fond of boxes just the right size to be crammed full of books but still lift-able. I thought this weird but other people I know who rent also live in a perpetual cardboard box hunt. This should not be a normal way to live your life, but it is. Insecurity does this to you, you are always thinking that at some point, another move is on its way and not necessarily at your instigation.

As to me feeling sorry for my landlady, well to a degree I do. I don’t want to go into her circumstances here as they are just that, hers. I have some idea of why she’s selling and I know she doesn’t want to. To that extent I feel sorry for her. Where I have a problem however is that the sale was actually quite predictable. House owners get to check out tenants but the reverse is not true. Had I been able to check out my landlady, and charge her for the pleasure, I would have decided she was not financially secure enough for me to want to rent from her.

Regarding the stress of finding somewhere to rent, well perhaps if you’re always assuming that renting is a quick fix, or something you do until such time as you can buy a place, maybe. However, I’m not alone in knowing I’ll never have the cash to buy. Even if I saved every penny and sold the horse, the sums don’t add up. The house I currently rent is for sale at more than 8x my salary meaning I would not be able to get a mortgage on it. Within a 5-mile radius of where I live the only property for sale within my price range is land with no housing on it. Average property price in my county is around 13x the average salary. On an average salary for this county, if you shopped around in the poorer areas you could get something for around 6x your salary. These figures mean that for many people, renting is something they will need to do in the long term, not something they do in the interim until they have the wherewithal to buy. And it’s not just the stress of finding a new home, it’s the stress of knowing you can get booted out because someone else has a problem that really isn’t of your making.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lived with people being shown around my home. Initially I was not given notice to move, as the landlady didn’t know how long the sale would take and she depends on my rent, meaning she hedged her bets. This meant that legally I didn’t have to let any prospective buyers around but I did, although I insisted on 24 hours’ notice. On one occasion I flat out refused access because the estate agents attempted to give me two hours’ warning before showing someone around. Within 3 days I received a phonecall from my landlady saying she would have to give me my official notice to end the tenancy. Strange timing, that, and according to her, the estate agents had told her to give me notice, it was not her decision. If you think it isn’t stressful having strangers tramp around your home loudly discussing how many bedrooms it has and how quickly they can get you out, try it for yourself.

I’ve heard the argument that landlords would not want to rent if they had to offer more security to which I say Good. Perhaps if fewer people wanted to get rich quick on BTL, house prices wouldn’t be so ridiculously out of line with wages. And if they’re worried their houses will be trashed by bad tenants again fine, don’t do it. We now have a situation in which the new Housing Minister is a landlord thus it seems unlikely that tenants’ rights will be increased. The Tories, having sold off council housing in the 1980s are busy planning the sell-off of housing association stock. And yet it seems to me that a good way to avoid risks for both tenants and landlords is to have common ownership. If houses for rent were owned by councils or housing associations we wouldn’t be in a situation in which landlords suddenly have to sell up, leaving stressed tenants in fear of being homeless. The current situation doesn’t work and yet this government is bent on pushing us further into it. Unsurprising really, as it helps those who have gain more, whilst those who have not lose out to an ever greater extent.

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The reclaiming of the shrew

Recently, in their efforts to educate me, my cats have been bringing me dead shrews. I’m curious about shrews because of Shakespeare’s play. Finding a live shrew shrieking in my living room, I started to ask questions about the comparison between a small, feisty, loud-mouthed insectivore and women who are insulted for apparently having similar characteristics.

When someone says that a woman is “shrewish” they make a statement about both the woman and the shrew. Often we only question one side of a metaphor but take the other for granted. Thus we think we know about shrews, and think we are only influencing our view of women in comparing the two. However, in truth each side of the metaphor informs the other. Not only do we start to see women as shrews – we start to see shrews as women. And the metaphor acts as a filter. We see only the characteristics we think the two have in common and ignore all the others. Hear a woman shriek and liken her to a shrew, hear a shrew shriek and decide it’s like a woman and ignore whatever other features the two may have. But why is the behaviour of either mocked? Why is it that women and shrews “shriek” whereas men “shout”?

Insults are often gendered – women are criticised for behaviour which is accepted in men. How often have you heard a man criticised for being “bossy”? Men are expected to be the boss, women are not, therefore for men to be the boss is a compliment whereas women are construed as “bossy”. Likewise how often have you heard a man described as: strident; hysterical; outspoken; emotional; a fishwife (is there a male equivalent?); catty; an attention seeker; forthright; histrionic; feisty. Is aggression criticised in men or is it more likely to be seen as normal, possibly just assertive behaviour? When women express themselves, perhaps forcefully, the behaviour is criticised and social norms are used to help prevent that expression. Female expression can be hysterical or emotional. It can be catty, bitchy, made nasty and trivial. Or it is strident and bossy, i.e. the woman is overstepping the mark by being, in some way, too loud, too dominant, too opinionated. If a man is ever described as opinionated I can guarantee he’ll either be working class, young, non-white or a combination of the three. White men, particularly those of more mature years, are expected to have opinions and are free to express them.

Witness this exchange between Caroline Criado-Perez and a Twitter follower. After CCP was the victim of harassment on Twitter, a Twitter silence was organised for her. Whilst she was grateful, she didn’t agree with it. CCP I really cannot imagine one man telling another man he was adopting a bold tone, or that he had earned the right to disappoint someone. Women are expected to behave in rather different ways.

I often hear the expression “boys will be boys”. Yet when growing up I was told “girls are more difficult”. Consider the difference in these two expressions. When boys misbehave, it’s written off as an inevitable part of their gender. When girls misbehave, they are “difficult”. I found the idea that somehow by being a girl I was more problematic very odd. I didn’t think I was doing anything more difficult to deal with than my brother was. As a teenager I decided it wasn’t that girls were more troublesome, it was that society often didn’t like the way they behaved and so labelled them as such. My parents were beside themselves if I was 10 minutes late back home, even if I told them where I was, who I was with and what the problems were with getting back. My brother could not return all night and they were unconcerned. Yet objectively, my brother was far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than I was. Girls are no more difficult, people are just less accepting of what they get up to.

The more I consider the gendered insults intended to curb women’s behaviour, the more I think they are connected to attempts to keep women out of fully occupying the public sphere. Certainly the abuse women get on Twitter is intended to keep them away or just shut them up (and women are often told that they could just shut up and the abuse would go away, as if silencing a woman is ever the answer to the problem). Women are often told not to go out alone. If I go into a pub on my own it’s OK for a man to try to chat me up, and if I’m not interested just saying so won’t work. The best way to get rid of him would be to say I was with someone else. If that someone else then turns up, the man will apologise to my partner, not to me, despite the fact that it is me who feels insulted and told him to go away in the first place. Men occupy public space unhindered yet is acceptable to hinder women if they are in public. The argument that women should stay at home to avoid being attacked, rather than men stay at home to avoid attacking them, reinforces this notion that public space is not for all. Public space is male space and women are only allowed into it if they abide by certain rules.

This curbing of women’s behaviour is not healthy for them. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Health, argues that there are implications for both physical and mental health if women are unable to express themselves. Personally I think that aggression is often discouraged in women and portrayed as unfeminine. Thus women will frequently resort to indirect aggression —behaviour not overtly aggressive but with an aggressive intent. That can take the form of sulking, refusing to talk and learned helplessness amongst others. This behaviour seems quite childish because when women are criticised for expressing themselves in certain ways, they are not being allowed to grow up. Which brings us back to the shrew. It’s small, it’s comical, its level of outspokenness is worthy of laughter because it’s so preposterous.

Moving away from the metaphor, what else do we know about shrews? My cats were bringing in both common shrews and the more unusual water shrew. They weren’t eating them because shrews have glands on their skin from which they exude a foul-tasting liquid. Shrews need to eat very frequently to live but in winter the common shrew actually shrinks in size so that it requires less food. I don’t mean it loses weight, apparently even its skull gets smaller, which is a neat way of getting through the winter.

The water shrew apparently immobilises its prey with toxic saliva. If disturbed, litters of shrews will move in a caravan, each shrew grasping the tail of the one in front. The fact that I found most odd was probably this one:

A bizarre and unexplained specialization is shown by the African Scutisorex somereni. It has additional and enlarged lumbar vertebrae interlocked by numerous bony spines, forming a flexible and very strong backbone. This shrew can support the weight of a person (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/542010/shrew)

Not bad for a small shouty animal. Shrews evolved over 40 million years ago, so they are survivors. Indeed shrews resemble the earliest mammals so in terms of body plans, it’s highly successful. Shrews are apparently the fourth most successful family of mammals. And, after my encounter with a live shrew in my living room, I’m impressed by them. I’m impressed by any animal that small that refuses to accept its weakness but instead raises its voice in protest. Neither shrews nor women should be mocked for expressing themselves. For their own health, women should feel able to express opinions without the implicit criticism of being told they are bossy, opinionated, outspoken or bold. But for myself, if anyone ever calls me a shrew, I shall agree. They are intriguing, fascinating, unafraid to shout and they are survivors.

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Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

As a schoolchild I was subjected to some horrendous bullying for the crime of being (drrrrumroll) ginger. Explaining this, as an adult, it’s not unusual for other adults to ask why I didn’t just dye my hair, which amazes me because even at the age of 11 I had worked out that the problem wasn’t me being ginger. The problem was other people’s attitudes to me being ginger and those attitudes would have become more entrenched, not less, if I had dyed my hair brown. By the time I was in my teens I had worked out that it was important not to change but to maintain my appearance. If people rejected me because of the colour of my hair they weren’t worth knowing. As a reason for discriminating against someone, this was less than skin deep.

There is no doubt that the bullying scarred me. I attribute much of my later depression to the treatment I received at school. However, I wouldn’t necessarily change what happened because as an adult, it gave me something else. I realised that if I had changed my hair to brown and fitted in, there would have been something else that I or someone else had been picked on for. If my hair had fitted in, something else, probably even more minor, wouldn’t have done. The end result of kowtowing to bullies is that we all end up looking and acting in very similar ways to escape the process of bullying and yet this doesn’t prevent bullying. It encourages it by giving bullies the result that they want.

Whilst as a young teenager I was almost constantly told I was ugly and undesirable, in my late teens something changed. Men began to see me as someone they really, really wanted to shag. I’m under no illusions that their emotions were anything more complex than that but suddenly I was considered something of a trophy because of the very looks which had been mocked a couple of years before. It was confusing, and to be honest meant I didn’t really respect the men who were judging my appearance. I wasn’t pleased that they were judging me positively. They had already judged me so negatively and I was bright enough to realise that the issue wasn’t a positive or negative pronouncement on my appearance. The issue was that they were judging me on my appearance at all. I realised that good looks were a fortunate chance, not an achievement. For this realisation I am grateful. (I know that appearance is often an important part of attraction. It isn’t however a reason to shout at people across the street and loudly announce your verdict on their appearance).

This knowledge of bullying has stood me in good stead when it comes to cycling on English roads. Apart from anything else, it’s given me the confidence to judge what I’m up to based on facts, not on other people’s prejudices. It’s why I so dislike the othering of cyclists – that sense that what one does, they are all responsible for because they are all other and different, and linked together by that difference. Thus when someone argues that cyclists would be more popular if only they obeyed the rules, I don’t just agree. Instead, I looked beyond the surface and analyse what else might be going on.

When new kid on the Twitter block @CyclePledge emerged s/he made what might at first glance seem a reasonable case. That is: ask a few people what they dislike about cyclists. Listen to the response “It’s because they don’t obey the Highway Code” and set out to do two things, first get cyclists to pledge to obey the Highway Code and second try to prove that they already obey it. Cycle Pledge has taken something of a battering and I’d rather not add to it, but I do feel it necessary to explain why I object.

One of the things I learned from being bullied is that if you have an image problem, it’s a distinct possibility that the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not with you. Thus it’s quite likely that if people think cyclists don’t obey traffic regulations, the problem is one of perception rather than reality. And indeed this is the case. In the majority of collisions involving bikes, the fault lies with the driver, not the cyclist. The majority of cyclists stop at red lights despite the fact that road design and generalised fear make it quite tempting not to. Added to this, anecdotally, I find that when I’m told off for doing something wrong on a bike, I’m actually obeying the law and the other person is just wrong (e.g. when you’re cycling on a cycle path and get told off for cycling on the pavement by someone who’s just unobservant). Add into this the whole “road tax” argument and you can see that dislike of cyclists is based on perceptions, not what cyclists are actually doing. People don’t like cyclists and then look for reasons to justify this.

It becomes more obvious that “not obeying the Highway Code” is just an excuse when you look at who actually breaks traffic regulations i.e. motorists. The majority of drivers break laws concerning mobile phones and driving. According to the RAC   83% of drivers admit they speed regularly, whilst 92% say they are law-abiding, a stat that says almost all you need to know about attitudes to breaking traffic regulations. Indeed the notion that motorists are law abiding extends to the argument that speed is safe and the laws are wrong. There are whole websites devoted to giving warnings of the location of speed cameras and drivers complain when cameras are hidden although the obvious way to avoid a speeding fine is just not to speed.

Thus, if law breaking were a genuine reason not to like a group of road users, motorists would be amongst the most hated group in society, but they’re not. Instead, their ways around obeying the law are generally tolerated and sometimes lauded. So if law breakers are OK, you can see that no amount of pledging to obey the Highway Code is going to make anyone like a cyclist – because that’s not the real reason for the dislike. My bullying was less to do with my hair colour, more specifically to do with the fact that I didn’t care that I looked different and so made people feel insecure. Cyclists too are disliked for being part of a minority that challenges entrenched thinking.

There is an instructive asymmetry at play here. The children who bullied me for my hair colour were being obviously and thoroughly unreasonable. Adults expressing dislike for cyclists on the grounds that they disobey rules are on the face of it being reasonable which is why it’s easy to fall for their argument. Add in the fact that out of all cyclists everywhere some of them will break the rules at some point and you give people the perfect opportunity to say “yes, that’s right, yesterday I saw a cyclist on the pavement”. But, being bullied taught me much about human behaviour, principally that people will pick on difference and then rationalise their prejudice, and that is what is happening when people say they dislike cyclists for law breaking. As noted above, if law breaking, particularly dangerous law breaking, were their real problem, it would be drivers they hated.

Thus when Cycle Pledge argues that cyclists should pledge to say they obey the Highway Code, all s/he is really doing is promising that gingers will dye their hair. It’s confirming someone’s prejudice, not tackling it. The seeming reasonableness of the request make it more dangerous, not less. It’s the same prejudice being pandered to, it’s just managed to disguise itself with the semblance of rationality. It’s failing to get at the root cause of the dislike and instead tackling the post hoc justification for it.

The better option would be to campaign for cyclists to have designated spaces. At the moment, when you examine the design of our roads, towns and cities, what you see is space for cars, with a little room for pedestrians and very little specifically for cyclists. Our environment is designed to say “cyclists are not one of us, there is no room for them”. Redesign towns so that cyclists are included and are part of the accepted norm and you should find a shift in social attitudes towards that acceptance. Cyclists will stop being other when they are included within public spaces rather than designed out of them.

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International Men’s Day

But why can’t we have International Men’s Day?

“Pfft, you women, you say you want equality but you have a whole day to yourselves and we men don’t do we”. OK, it was a tweet. But I still saw it.

Well it’s good news, men. You can have International Men’s Day. But first you do have to fulfil the following criteria:

Every time you leave your front door, think about what you’re wearing. Ask yourself, is this likely to spark off a cacophony from passing women, who are physically bigger and stronger and will therefore make me feel vulnerable and threatened just for leaving my own front door in jeans and a jumper

Don’t go out on your own after dark. Well preferably don’t go out on your own. If you do go out on your own, especially after dark, and suffer a criminal act, expect people to ask why you were out on your own. And at that time of night. And what you were doing

You do “x” like a boy is an insult. Also “boyish” is an insult. From here on in, just for being in your own skin, you’ll be told you’re weak and inferior. But don’t worry. 1 day out of every 365 we’ll celebrate you, so it’s OK

4.8% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies will be held by men

At many academic institutions, only 1 in 10 professors will be male, although you’ll be pleased to know that at lower grades, you’re almost on parity, so you know, what’s the fuss

You’ll live with the fear that around 1 in 5 men will be raped in their lifetime and that if that happens to you, someone will say it was your fault for doing something. It doesn’t matter what that was. It could have been being out late, wearing the “wrong” thing, being drunk, trusting someone.  Anything. Because some people fail to realise and acknowledge that rape is the fault of rapists, not that of their victims. Because some people persist in believing myths about rape.

You’ll live with the knowledge that you’ll always earn less than women, whether you choose to have children or not

You’ll read articles about your achievements as an astrophysicist that start “Dave is a father of two, how does he fit it all in?”

Almost every film that you watch will leave you feeling disengaged because 90% of the cast are white and female and the 10% that aren’t will get shot early on or wait on tables. Or get shot whilst waiting on tables

Someone will develop a test asking if at least two men in a work of fiction talk about something other than a woman. At least half of all films will fail this test because they will all be about women doing women things

You’ll be told that an alien with two hearts who time travels, solves the world’s problems with a sonic screwdriver, regenerates, and travels in a box that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside can’t be male, because that would be really weird

You’ll be told you’re shrewish, bold, hysterical, rude or bossy just for doing your job and expressing an opinion. You’ll have a nagging feeling that women don’t get treated like that

Women will explain things to you. Even when you have a PhD in the topic and a wealth of work experience and they have neither of these things and are clearly wrong, they will explain your own job to you. They will call you a boy whilst they do this, even though you’re 38. Then when you object, they’ll say you’re being hysterical

When we give people two equal CVs, one with a male name and one with a female name, people will judge the one with the man’s name on more harshly

Famous male authors will be told to publish as women or just use initials instead of a full first name because a book by Joe Rowling wouldn’t sell

We’ll give you one day to celebrate you and someone will manage to ruin even that by saying “but it’s not fair, why do you get a whole day to yourself?”

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