Cameron's EU speech set to clash with Obama's inauguration

Speech now scheduled for Monday would coincide with the US president's public swearing-in ceremony.

David Cameron's apparently jinxed speech on the EU will now be delivered on Monday. That's according to today's FT, which reports that as Downing Street advisers gathered to discuss the Algerian crisis and reschedule the speech, "Cameron made it clear he wanted to give it on Monday".

Whether or not the Prime Minister gets his way largely depends on the outcome of the hostage standoff, with no guarantee that all British citizens will be accounted for by the end of the weekend. But has Number 10 considered another potential obstacle? Monday 21 January is also the date of Barack Obama's second inauguration. Since 20 January - presidential Inauguration Day - is a Sunday, only a private ceremony will be held with the public ceremony, as is traditional in such circumstances, pushed back to the following day. It will be the seventh time in US history that the constitutionally mandated inauguration date has fallen on a Sunday, with Ronald Reagan the last president to be inaugurated on a Monday in 1985.

Given the attention that will be on Obama and the US administration's publicly expressed scepticism of Cameron's EU strategy, Downing Street would be advised to postpone the speech again. According to a White House readout, Obama told Cameron on Thursday that "the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world." The US, which has long sought to support European integration (recall Henry Kissinger's question, "Who do I call when I want to speak to Europe?"), has been troubled by speculation that the UK could withdraw from the EU at some point in the next five years. Earlier this month, Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs, warned that "referendums have often turned countries inwards". He added: "every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world."

Number 10 has already been forced to move the speech once to avoid a diplomatic incident. After months of delays, Cameron was due to deliver his address on 22 January but Angela Merkel's office complained that this would clash with celebrations to mark the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, which cemented the two countries' post-war reconciliation.

Tory MPs were promised an address from Cameron on Europe as long ago as last autumn but when the speech failed to materialise this was changed to "before Christmas". When this deadline too was missed, Cameron ill-advisedly remarked at a press gallery lunch in Westminster: "Thanks for reminding me that my Europe speech remains as yet unmade. This is a tantric approach to policy-making: it’ll be even better when it does eventually come." But Monday would appear the wrong day to deliver.

Barack Obama told David Cameron that the US "values a strong UK in a strong European Union" during a phonecall on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

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