Snow is like the Pussycat Dolls

Snow is starting to get too big for its boots. It needs to be put in its place.

Snow! When I woke up this morning, it had been falling stealthily for hours with that strange, magical, I'm-thicker-than-rain sound. As I glance out of the window at my quiet street, it's coating the cars and hanging thickly in the branches. The pavements and lawns are covered in unblemished white layers of it.

Pretty soon local schools will start admitting there's no point in trying to restrain the kids, who will be let loose like wild animals. By this evening, with a couple more flurries, the whole neighbourhood will look like a Christmas card - fittingly, as local shops have been pretending it's Christmas since mid-September as usual. Good old snow!

White gold

And if we get another couple of days of the white gold, it'll start to bring about all the other magical effects we see every winter. Elderly people will fall over and crack ribs and break legs, but the emergency services won't be able to do much about it, because they'll be dealing with "youths" who've chucked handfuls of it in each other's faces. Public transport will grind to a customary halt, and if there's one thing more tedious than that, it's people complaining that public transport has ground to a customary halt.

Radio phone-ins and local news bulletins will be full of nothing but people asking: "Why, oh why, can't we in this country deal with a little bit of snow?" But even as they're doing this, the national media will be embarking on their annual snow-fest, with wall-to-wall updates on exactly how white everything is at the moment. The blanket (of snow) coverage will push everything else out of the headlines: if Elvis were to fly in to the country during a cold snap, the main focus of the reports would be on whether or not his airport was going to be closed.

On top of this, it will be horribly, horribly cold for weeks. It'll be difficult to get around without slipping and sliding like beginner ice skaters. In fact, the whole of Britain will look like the early stages of Dancing on Ice, except without the alarming leotards. Queues in ­supermarkets and post offices and banks and everywhere else will suddenly be maddeningly long as people get into the British mildly-bad-weather siege mentality ("We might be prisoners for six months! We must withdraw all our money and buy 1,000 tins of beans!").

Events will be cancelled. The public mood will become ugly as cars get trapped in driveways; the poor man whose job it is to explain why the country doesn't have enough grit for the roads will be wheeled out again. Finally, the whole fandango will sputter out about a week before Christmas, just in time for an un-festive dampness to settle as Father Christmas starts to make his rounds.

Yes, I'm sorry to be a Scrooge about this, and I know it isn't a popular viewpoint, but snow really isn't that much fun. It's time for us all to get over it.
I know there's an atavistic thrill when it starts to fall, I know it looks beautiful at night when you're huddled in front of the fire, I know it's a very handy way of getting a day off work. I'm not advocating a complete ban on the stuff. Nor am I crying "humbug" at all the people whose first instinct is to go scampering out to play in the snow until their face freezes over. Good luck to them all. I'm just asking for a bit of common sense and perspective here. Snow is like a lot of today's girl bands: superficially attractive, but quickly tiresome and ultimately quite damaging.

Next time the heavens open with snow, picture the Pussycat Dolls hurtling out of the sky, and I can almost guarantee you'll see it in a less favourable light. Unless you go on to imagine them dashing their brains out on the pavement. In which case, the fantasy has its merits.

Big boots

Perhaps a couple of years ago, the rarity value of snow provided more of an excuse for its worship. But in 2009 and 2010 alone, there have been at least four severe snowfalls, two of them shutting down the roads around me for a week at a time. We can no longer act as if snow is some kind of prodigal son appearing whimsically to light up our lives. It's starting to get too big for its boots. It needs to be put in its place.

And that place is a few days either side of Christmas, a cameo in a few dozen festive films, followed by a dignified disappearance.

When snow starts playing by those rules again, I'll be back on its side. Until then, do excuse me if I don't join in the scramble to put it down someone's neck or throw it at cars, or even jump around in it. I'm off to buy some of those flaming torches used by circus acts. Let's see if
I can tidy things up a bit around here.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

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