Same generation: Girls cast members at a panel discussion in Pasadena this January
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Privilege and post-feminism: Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger

Like the US TV series Girls – but for people who went to Cambridge.

Eat My Heart Out
Zoe Pilger
Serpent's Tail, 304pp, £11.99

Ann-Marie is in a state. Not only has the 23-year-old protagonist of Zoe Pilger's fearsome debut novel, Eat My Heart Out, had her heart broken by her first love, but she has dropped out of university, having failed her exams, and is now living in a fetid Clapham flatshare with an in-the-closet public-school-boy-turned-artist called Freddie. And she is completely skint. The situation is a mess, and being adopted (or, perhaps more accurately, kidnapped) by the legendary feminist Stephanie Haight fails to help matters. Haight is convinced that if she can teach Ann-Marie, a post-feminist, the true nature of female oppression, she can transform her into the voice of her generation; but all Ann-Marie seems to want to do is eat offal, read Nietzsche and fall in love.

Indeed, in this perfectly pitched satire of intergenerational conflict, Ann-Marie’s belief that romantic love is the answer to all her problems seems to be the biggest disconnect, both in terms of the era of feminists that came before her and her own sex life (in one scene, she lets an old man she met at the restaurant where she works as the “door bitch” go down on her in a hotel room, then is sick in a bin outside).

I did not enjoy this book at first, despite belonging to the same, post-feminist, “f**k it” age group. The blurb describes Pilger (the daughter of the film-maker and NS contributor John) as being “like a foul-mouthed Nancy Mitford for the Gawker generation”; I would describe it as being more like the cult American TV series Girls, but for people who went to Cambridge. I didn’t go to Cambridge and I don’t roll with the privileged crowd this novel satirises, so I struggled at times to work out what Pilger was getting at.

There are lines that made me howl with laughter and recognition, though. “Freddie says you love Beyoncé because you went to a black school and that is sick,” the odious public-school runaway Samuel says to Ann-Marie at one point. As the novel progresses, we learn that Ann-Marie is more of an outsider than she lets on. Later, another character describes the all-female college she attended at Cambridge as “a shocking place, full of sexless pain. Full of the impotence of eunuchs.” Such disgust is palpable throughout.

Some reviews of Eat My Heart Out have pointed out how the book lacks likeable characters, and again in this sense it resembles Girls. Depictions of post-adolescent, warts-and-all, drunken femininity seem to be in vogue; the forthcoming novel
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth has been described by Caitlin Moran as “like Withnail and I but with girls”. Yet Eat My Heart Out differs from other works of the moment in that there is no real engagement with the dynamics of female friendship. (“Where are her girls?” I kept wondering about Ann-Marie.) Nearly all the women in this book are cruel and unstable, and the only one who could have been described as a friend smears Ann-Marie’s bedroom walls with human excrement.

In the end, I read Eat My Heart Out as a tongue-in-cheek dystopian vision of what happens when you become so overly engaged with pop-cultural visions of mass femininity – so obsessed with what men want and how to give it to them – that you forget there are living, breathing women out there who might have your best interests at heart. They might even be willing to take you out for a drink, if only you would let them.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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