It's all over Mao, baby blue

China cancels Bob Dylan's Beijing shows.

It seems that China can't get enough of turfing out American institutions: first Google, and now Bob Dylan. The singer-songwriter had planned to tour east Asia this month, but his shows in Beijing were abruptly cancelled by the Chinese authorities, who were anxious, no doubt, that his very presence would lead to the utter collapse of the Communist Party, the liberation of Tibet and revolution on a scale not seen since Jesus of Nazareth walked on water, saying: "Hey, check this."

After a 2008 Björk concert that ended with the Icelandic singer shouting "Tibet, Tibet", China imposed explicit new rules for foreign musicians interested in performing in the country. "Those who used to take part in activities that harm the nation's sovereignty," the government announced, "are firmly not allowed to perform in China."

It's interesting that Dylan, at 68, is still perceived as a threat at all -- even in his politicised youth, his attitudes to socialism were ambivalent, bordering on sympathetic. In songs such as "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", he was more likely to poke fun at American "patriots" obsessed with rooting out Russian spies than at the card-carrying party members themselves:

I wus lookin' high an' low for them Reds everywhere
I wus lookin' in the sink an' underneath the chair
I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl
They got away . . .

Besides which, Dylan's post-millennial career has hardly been politically inflammatory. His most recent release was a homely Christmas album; and, true to the sentiment of his towering 1997 blues "Highlands", he has reportedly upped sticks to Scotland to play golf with his brother.

The Guardian suggests that the Chinese ban could restore Dylan's credibility as "the prophet from Desolation Row". Such a mantle, however, never did suit an artist more interested in eternal truths and American mythology than the act of predicting the future.

When Leonard Cohen tried to play Ramallah on the West Bank in 2009, his concert, too, was cancelled, but for very different reasons. His Palestinian bookers pulled the plug amid claims that the show would be a concessionary gesture, with the sole purpose of "balancing" his performance in Tel Aviv.

The accusation was cruel -- the proceeds of Cohen's tour in the region, after all, were intended for a Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation fund started by the singer -- yet the arguments of his detractors raise an interesting point with regard to Dylan's later snub.

Shir Hever, an economist and activist with the Alternative Information Centre, said that Cohen had "missed the point", and that his Tel Aviv gig served as "a kind of validation" of Israel's conduct in the West Bank. Israelis "point out the willingness of people like Madonna and Leonard Cohen to give shows as a sign that Israel is normal, like a European country".

If this logic applies to China, the country's reluctance to send the message of normalcy through its cultural interactions provides a curious insight into its sense of exceptionalism. Keen to assert its independence from the world's major powers (as its growing tensions with the US demonstrate), China seems happy to announce its abnormality, its special place in the changing global hegemony -- which could be bad news for music fans in Beijing.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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