Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell series. By Jarred Everson www.jjeverson.com
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On ghosts, or why I never want to be anybody’s muse

It took 27 years for me to admit that I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them.

Sometimes I occupy beds that ghosts visit.

There was a strong and pathetic need in me up until a few years ago to become someone’s muse. Whether you think of yourself as a feminist woman or not, sometimes it’s hard to get away from the fact that your role has already been predestined, written in curling, delicate hand about Lord Byron, chiselled into stone somewhere, Edie Sedgwick and her ilk lie in ecstasy in the background of some dark, violent party of the mind, the reason the men are there, but the muses are not the centre of conversation, and yes, they are the glamorous, seductive type you are drawn to. You can’t stop thinking of yourself as the romantic figure, floating in and out of heroes’ lives, a Jane Eyre or another long-suffering woman who is foregrounded in your head but just lives to lend all the ideas you have about the world to another, because they seem to have a firmer hand, a choking grasp on life you do not, because you’ve seen it happen before, and it will happen again. There’s no song lyric “men are doing it for themselves”, well, because, nothing so obvious is ever written down and paid attention to. A blackened part of me understands that there are thousands of voices of women in the chasm of history who only ever spoke through the voices of the men they fell in love with. Some of the greatest works of our time would be even finer if they had been written by the hand who first had the idea.

The only antidote to this is to really pay attention to how utterly fragile talent is when contained within the human body. It is certainly not robust enough to be kept in only men. You stay around anyone you admire for their games or art or writing for long enough and you’ll understand that they are awful in some incredibly profound way, and if they aren’t awful they are a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that it will hurt to think about.

I’ve spoken a lot with the game designer and writer Harvey Smith recently about whether having a privileged background or upbringing helps a person produce better art, or whether having a difficult life helps produce better art (Harvey has a wealth of stories about his background that would make you think the latter). I concluded that when you don’t have things like social ostracisation, war, poverty or sickness in your way, it’s much easier to make things faster, which is probably why middle-class white dudes produce such a vast array of our art. There’s a better hit rate, y’know? And it’s not necessarily that broken people make better art, though perhaps sometimes the ability to communicate pain helps. I don’t believe you have to be beaten down by society to make something profound. You just have to be able to produce it, and that’s the hard part. The hard part is telling yourself you are that person. The person who makes.

There’s something Harvey said recently that really sticks with me, and it’s this wonderful little moment in time in my head. Writers have a real talent for articulating exactly what you didn’t know you thought before, and he said, sitting on the arm of the couch, looking up at me in the loft of his and Leah’s beautiful Lyon apartment, “The hardest part is admitting you want to do it. Saying, I want to be a games designer, or a writer, or anything creative.”

It took me about twenty-seven years, most of them during which I was writing fiction, poetry or criticism, to realise that I was a writer, and that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was a writer who was good enough. I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them. Why was I wasting time? You do not get to write my story. I write it. I write it myself. Stealing is only legitimate if it’s mutual. There does not get to be a one way road any more. I am no one’s muse because I have the ideas. They are mine.

Perhaps I am fucked up, awful in some incredibly profound way, and if I’m not awful I might be a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that will hurt for others to think about. Perhaps I am that person that men look at and think, I wish I was her muse, though the canon for some sort of male muse is somewhat absent. None of it really matters to me now, because I understand that talent is fragile and that even trying to articulate it now may be killing any talent I had left.

Right now as I am travelling through France I realise that I have the firmest choke hold on life I have ever had. I do not need the ghosts that I once summoned to my bed: those ghosts that I once thought, perhaps the creativity of life will touch me through them and I will feel good again. Those ghosts that I used to think: they are the only romantic thing about my life. The ones I let go, the ones I could never have, the people who did not respect or love me, the people who slipped through my fingers, or laughed when someone said, “She’s a writer. Sort of.” The ghosts who will watch you sleep and when you wake you are covered in a thousand cuts. The ghosts who whisper hoarse in the dark, they used to say, “You should have asked me to marry you.”

I slit all their throats. And when I occupy a bed with another person who has those ghosts, I can shake the ghosts’ hands and say, I know you, and I have sympathy for you. But you are not welcome. I am waiting for the day this person kills you.

. . . I’ll come back on that day.

This article first appeared on caraellison.co.uk and is crossposted here with permission

BBC
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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.