Sport 43: 2015
Maria McMillan — It’s complicated
1. The 100 Things challenge
It’s complicated but we long for simplicity. Everyone wants to be that Beatles song, four chords and perfection. Everyone wants to pare back. To get to something essential about themselves and each other. To declutter. There is a decluttering industry and decluttering websites and decluttering books and professional declutterers who will come to you with their five magic baskets: things to throw out, things to recycle, things to reuse, things to keep, and things to sneak into someone else’s pile of clutter.
There is the 100 Things Challenge to reduce your possessions to 100. There is the official 100 Things book and the official 100 Things teeshirt and after that you are left with only 98 things. Some people try for less. Some people treat it as a competition about who can have the least stuff. Three pairs of underpants, two tops, a pair of jeans, a fork, a bowl, an iPod with 2300 songs, a Kindle, a small unpolished pebble from an important beach.
It’s complicated but the cult of the uncluttered is trying to get in. Trying to occupy not only our domestic spaces but also our intellectual ones. The slogan, the meme, the vainglorious rule, the 140 characters that threaten to become not an exercise in summary, or pithy articulation, or brilliant brevity, but to become the thing itself.
2. Her body, her choice!
I keep getting into online fights. An example. Someone says in an online group, I want to support my friend but she wants to get a breast enlargement and she’s going out with this guy who sayspage 133 horrible things about her body and compares her to other women.
I say, Tell her you love her, but you’re worried, and tell her she looks great as she is. And I say, Isn’t it sad that some men still do that to women? And someone else tells me I am being patronising, and that perhaps the woman will feel better and more attractive with larger breasts. I think they talk about agency.
I say, But isn’t it sad that women have been taught to value themselves so heavily on their appearance they will cut themselves open to fix a problem they don’t have? And I get told that it is Her body, her choice. And I feel the finger jabbing me through the screen. Her body, her choice. Her body, her choice. You must, this person says to the woman’s friend, support her unconditionally. Her body. Her choice.
As if it’s simple. As if, if we say the words to ourselves enough times, we can drown out the complexities and the conditions of bodies and of choosing. As if we should forget everything but those four words, the boyfriend, the beauty industry, magazines dedicated to nurturing women’s self-doubt, pornography, sexism. They are all just so many distractions. As if all we need is an empty white-walled room with the four words Her body, her choice in a neon sign high above us, shining out like a Vegas strip joint sign. At the feet of the four words we should lay down our doubts and quiver.
3. Oh, you’re a bitch
Over the Fence Is Out, Marilyn Duckworth, 1970
‘Slippery pants. You’re a bitch, aren’t you? Oh, you’re a bitch—you bitch you,’ says Gregory while fondling the buttocks of Janfrey. Janfrey is a clear-eyed and willing participant in a relationship with a hostile, abusive and murderous man. She chooses it. She and her body.
It’s London, Gregory’s fiancée Marie is in hospital. She’s just had a breakdown after being in a car accident which killed her brother Mel. Janfrey and Mel were in love. ‘We’re not going to make a cultpage 134 out of him, are we,’ asks Gregory walking in on Janfrey crying a few days after Mel’s death.
On their first date Gregory calls Janfrey a bitch, mocks her taste in shoes, corrects her language, gets ridiculously angry over perceived slights, kisses her, tells her he likes her and apologises for his behaviour. He woos her with, not despite, abuse. Janfrey insists to Gregory that she is not bothered by his numerous displays of contempt. He calls her beautiful and it takes her breath away.
When Marie comes out of hospital Gregory drops Janfrey, Marie and Gregory marry and a few months later Marie falls out of a vehicle Gregory is driving and dies. Janfrey and Gregory get back together. In bed they joke about the idea of Gregory having pushed Marie out of the car. Their humour is ghoulish and inhumane. Later in the night Janfrey panics and escapes Gregory’s house by climbing through the bathroom window. The next day Janfrey thinks the whole thing is a joke. A week later she moves into Gregory’s home and they become engaged. The couple move to Wellington and Gregory’s hostility blossoms.
Then he picked up the butter dish which was on the bench.
‘What’s this here for—the flies?’ He put it in the cupboard and banged the door.
‘I was buttering Jane’s rusk when you came.’
‘Well don’t apologise. For Christ’s sake!’
‘I was just explaining.’
‘Well just don’t talk. I don’t like the sound of your voice.’
In another exchange Gregory tells Janfrey he plans to put down a cat that Janfrey has adopted.
‘Oh!’ Janfrey tossed her head impatiently. ‘I can’t talk to you. I just can’t talk to you.’
‘You’re inarticulate,’ he agreed, grinning.
‘Perhaps you’d like to have me put to sleep as well?’
‘No. It doesn’t seem necessary. You’re quite useful and reasonably decorative.’
‘Well, thank you.’ She glowed at the unusual compliment. Itpage 135 occurred to her that it must be harder for a man to compliment his wife than just any woman.
At the end of the book, Janfrey discovers Gregory has been having a long-term affair and has taken his lover on a supposedly all-boys hunting trip. She drives to the campsite to confront him and as she arrives she witnesses Gregory shooting the lover in such a way he can claim it was an accident. It clearly wasn’t.
4. Happy and Free with H.D.
Intensive Care, Janet Frame, 1970
The first half of Janet Frame’s Intensive Care tells the story of a World War One soldier, Tom. Tom is engaged to a girl back home but, as he is recuperating from injury in an English hospital, he falls in love with his nurse. He marries the girl back home, has two children and when widowed returns to England to find his true love.
He finds her sick in hospital. While she remembers the young soldier she loved she does not recognise Tommy in the old man he has become. He is angry and kills her, making it look like she has suffocated in her blankets. When Tom returns to New Zealand he becomes part of a neglected tribe of returned soldiers and hard up women. He dreams—and dreams in this book are as important as reality—that he throws his wife into the slurry pool at work.
Both turned to look into the pool. Eleanor, shuddered.
‘This gives me the creeps. It looks bottomless, it’s like . . . it’s like a sore filled with pus—oh Tom!’
She clung to his arm. Her fingers felt small and strong. He grasped her fingers, then her hands, then moving to grasp her upper arm he swung her around, holding her arm with one hand, gripping her thigh with the other, and quickly, though she now began to struggle, he leaned her further back towards the slurry
. . .
‘That’s got rid of her, hasn’t it?’ Howard called, opening his mouth again in a flashing laugh. ‘Knew you’d do it, Tom.’
All evidence and memory of Eleanor disappears and in Tom’s dream he has married and grown old with the nurse.
In a later chapter Tom’s married grandson, Colin, falls for Lorna, a young woman in his office. Lorna and Colin run off to Australia together. She returns when her parents kick up a fuss. She conclusively breaks off the relationship. Tom also returns and becomes obsessed with Lorna and she repeatedly reject his attempts to reignite the relationship. After some months he buys a gun, walks to Lorna’s family house and kills her mother, her father, and then, while he has imagined at this moment he will make love to Lorna, he instead shoots her in the head and then kills himself.
The second half of Intensive Care is set sometime in the future. The Human Delineation Act has been introduced to Parliament. It is a law that will divide all people into either humans and worthy of rights, or animals who will be killed or harvested for useful products. The bureaucrats, at first repulsed, are subject to a sleep treatment which fills them with a sense of well-being and comfort. The law’s enactment is eased by mass tranquilisation through the water supply. There is a fierce communication strategy to support the policy. Short, meaningless, passionate phrases to usher in a new decluttered age. Without the others, there will be much more left, it is said, for those who remain as humans.
The Prime Minister has said, ‘Think not of the human race in the abstract, think of people you know who have struggled for years under the handicap of being human and would be eased of their distressing life by this new legislation . . . For how many years have we tried to mend, to recover and care for broken bits of humanity without realising that disposal, with other waste is the solution.’
This half of the book is mostly narrated diary-style by Milly Galbraith, a clever, engaged, autistic woman who knows she’s heading for the status of an animal. She has her own dialect, she converts her diagnosis as dull-normal to Miss Doll-Normill, she talks of her years of a-doll-essence. She is visionary, sharp, an astute observer of what is happening around her.page 137
On my birthday, the Deciding Day, everyone will be counted and tested and with all the information gathered the computer with all our history inside it will look at each one and say sharply like a soldier, Human, Animal, Human, Animal, depending on what you are, and if you are human everyone will smile at you and say ‘Fine weather we’re having, congratulations,’ and you will go free and be able to live in the world as a human being; on the other hand if the computer decides you are an animal, how different it will be for you in your future life, for at once they will kidnap you, capture you, and put you in a cage and take you to a factory if you are suitable they will experiment on you or keep you locked up and stare at you day and night, study you until the situation is more than you can bear.
The Human Delineation Act gets abbreviated to the more friendly H.D. There are H.D. jingles, happy family H.D. advertisements and there are catchy H.D. tunes hummed by the brainwashed policy pushers.
Happy and Free with H.D.
Loyalty to H.D.
Freedom for you and me.
Happy people we embracing our H.D.
5. Never, she cried to herself, never, never, never
Man of Straw, Joy Cowley, 1970
Thirteen-year-old Rosalind and her family have recently arrived in a new semi-rural neighbourhood. It’s the latest in a string of unhappy moves. Ros is exuberant and unhappy and painfully alive. She worries about her weight and longs for her older sister Miranda’s waistline. Ros has just started her period.
She wasn’t like the other kids, who said it hurt like hell and they had to lie down with hot-water bottles and aspirin. All she had was a knowledge of mystery, a strangeness that made the day as bright and unreal as a fairy-tale and a hundred years older than the day before.
Miranda is engaged and preoccupied with pursuit of normality. She appears to be in the grip of a near starvation diet in order to retain her figur. She torments her mother about her weight. She has flashes of horror about the cloying domesticity marriage will entail.
Ye Gods! She thought. Imagine it! A young thing comes out of a church blinded by a white veil, deafened with the lies of music. The guests, too, lie with smiles as their heads turn, and she smiles back because it is the best day of her life. Best? It’s the last. She doesn’t know it but they’ve just signed the license to kill, and the confetti ritual is simply a symbol of her own disintegration. In fifteen years’ time, she’ll be so thoroughly scattered over a small area of house and school that she won’t recognise the individual in the wedding photograph. She’ll remember the frock and the number of pearls that were stitched onto the bodice, but of the face she’ll say, ‘Who?’ and ‘Why is she smiling?’.
One hot summer Rosalind makes friends with Julie-Ann, a somewhat glamorous neighbourhood girl. After a happy intimacy, Rosalind finds herself ostracised because Julie-Ann has said that Rosalind’s father has sexually molested her. The situation is partially resolved when it is revealed that Julie-Ann’s mother and Rosalind’s father have been having an affair and it is presumed that Julie-Ann has made the accusation in a fit of confusion and anger at discovering the affair.
Ambiguity remains. The daughters realise that this is just the latest in a series of affairs their father has had. Miranda has smelt cigar smoke after she’s been making love to her fiance suggesting her father has been watching them. There are moments when it appears their father has been uncharacteristically attentive to Julie-Ann. There’s a creepiness in the air.
Neighbourhood thugs spurred by the social outcasting of the family kill Rosalind’s adored dog. When Rosalind feverish and thirsty is seen walking back to the house and her panicked family, Miranda approaches her. Rosalind takes fright, runs or falls off a nearby cliff, and dies.page 139
6. Are you preparing for the Deciding? Are you afraid?
I read and read these books one after the other. Books from my birth year. I expect it to be a kind of side project, unrelated to what I’m thinking about, unrelated to my frightening online conversations. Frightening because of this compulsion to wrangle complexity into things you can say in a single breath. Frightening because I keep getting told I am judging and I shouldn’t judge. Which seems to be another way of saying don’t think. Don’t think in compound sentences. Don’t exercise your compound sentence privilege.
All those dead women. All that fear. Of course it’s not a side project. It’s the same thing. In the world of Twitter novels are a kind of talisman and these novels astonish me. Their length, their compound sentences, the time in 1970 they took to tell you something. Some kind of urgent message about choice and complexity and consent. A message about choice told before it got truncated, before it started looking kind of the same as a message about no choice.
I realise I am being ridiculous, imagining 1970 as a kind of turning point, as a kind of beginning for everything and everyone—not just the decade, not just me. If they talked of such things at all, I thought they would be scrambling, clumsy, foreshadowing but not getting close to the analysis that would come later, when we’d all thought about it for a while and really understood it. Instead I think perhaps these books are the most sophisticated rendering of consent, choice and complexity that I have read.
Janfrey thoughtfully consents to life with a man who she knows has partly caused his previous wife’s breakdown and she suspects her death. She is an independent empowered woman who suppresses a life-preserving fear in favour of a life with a man who thinks she’s stupid and considers her beautiful.
Slightly drugged by slogans and tranquilisers, New Zealand’s population consents to mass murder. Milly Galbraith writes it all down but does not run or hide. Her mother guiltily hangs out and brings in the washing; her father plants seeds in the greenhouse.page 140 Having accepted her fate they plead with her: ‘“It has to be done, Milly. We can’t just not plant our gardens. I’m shaw you understand, Milly.”’
Rosalind runs from her parents’ house. They love her, they feed and try to protect her. Her mother consents to a philandering husband, her father is probably watching his daughter make love, her sister is fearing that marriage will be an emotional death. Compliance or rebellion against domesticity appear equally repugnant. We’re never sure if Ros’s death is choice or accident.
7. The wind was strong and there was a rough sea
Wednesday, 27 May, 1970
It’s early winter. It’s bitterly cold. Twenty cars are stranded on the desert road. The grass is white and stiff, it’s the year’s first real frost. All over the city rolled newspapers are collected from driveways and opened at the kitchen table, the smell of ink and instant coffee fills the room.
A volunteer fireman is charged with arson. China and North Vietnam have signed an agreement. Israel has begun policing its borders. The Manapouri petition is presented to Parliament. People are trying to stop the All Blacks tour South Africa.
There is a trimaran with four men on it travelling from Lord Howe Island to Russell. Radio Operator Mrs L. Walker has heard nothing from them. ‘The wind was strong and there was a rough sea’ says the report.
Headlines like short barks: Wall Street at 8-year low; Prices tumble to new low on Sydney Market; NZ Sharemarkets turn downwards.
A story: ‘Police alleged yesterday that William George Colthorpe had said he had the “crazy idea” of taking his wife’s body to work and “throwing her on the furnance”. . . He had said nothing when he got the hammer. She had said: “what are you doing?” and he had replied “you’ll never know”.’
The classifieds: This would suit a lady with an interest in books;page 141 Female clerk-typist; Female cafeteria assistant; Kitchen-hand female; Lady Assemblers/Operators; Ace Girls.
8. I imagine a story I could write
It’s 2020. Isla, a 12-year-old girl, is walking in the city. Her body has started its changes. She feels so full of herself, so alive, she’s surprised colour and light don’t pour off her and onto the footpath. It’s hot, her skin, the sun. She doesn’t want anything yet but this wanting. She knows it’s coming though. She’s happy.
She comes into a retail area. Brothels and strip clubs next to dairies and Briscoes and boutique nut shops. The buildings are old warehouses or were once homes but they loom over her as if they’re skyscrapers. The road seems to narrow as she walks down it. All around her are signs with naked women and dazzling words. Naked women bent over, their bottoms facing her. Women lying on their backs with their legs spread. Women lying on top of each other. Their breasts huge, their waists tiny, smiling or winking or licking their lips or opening their mouths but not for talking.
One club is called XXX-Positive Pets! This one just has a picture of a hopeful looking cat in a collar. Another sign says Choice. There is a light box of a smiling woman. She looks at Isla with a direct confident gaze. Her body has been divided into a grid like a menu, each box with a small tick box in the bottom right corner. Feminist Agency has a row of men in top hats, tuxedos and with canes. They look like they’re dancing in a line like in an old musical. In the very middle of this, a woman in a short skirt and a low top.
A car goes by and a boy, maybe ten, nothing adolescent about him, still androgynous, wolf whistles. He yells out the window at her in a threatening possessive way ‘Are you feminist yet? Are you feminist?’ His tongue rolling in and out of his mouth. Laughing and laughing at Isla.page 142
9. We’ve got everything ahead, waiting for us
Creamy Psychology, Yvonne Todd, December 2014–March 2015
Upstairs there are large photographs of women dressed and made up as if they’re from the 1970s. They are posed with high fashion lighting, neutral backgrounds. They are much larger than us, imposing. They are very still these photos. Partly because photography does not capture time but also because of hairspray. Their hair is thick and stiff and still. As I look closer and closer the bodies are stiff and still too.
In one photo two women in flesh-coloured body-hugging clothes are posed awkwardly, as if they’re mid-prance show ponies. Lifeless. Coagulating. Another image is of a child in women’s clothing, and full tasteful makeup, or possibly a woman whose child-like features are accentuated. She is not lumbered with the more obvious trappings of sexualisation, she is not posed sexually or naked, but somehow the horror of girls envisaged as women is captured. She looks carefree. Swamped in her clothes. Confident. Freckled.
The most frightening thing is not how these pictures deviate from fashion photography of the 1970s, or of now, but how they conform to it. How hardly anything needs to be changed for the obscenity of the pictures to emerge. Obscene because the humanity of the woman is drowned by the artifice.
In every picture something’s off. I hope fashion photography will be forever haunted by the protruding teeth of some of Todd’s models, the eyes bruised in the wrong way, the flippant horror of this brand of beauty. I hope it confuses people. I hope fashion photography swims forever more the tiny strait from professional to ridiculous. I hope the fashion photographers who see Todd’s work will now always secretly be wondering if they’ve missed something important, if, perhaps, they’ve missed the whole point.page 143
10. The things that we women love to do
Stuff.co.nz, 9 February 2015
I knew using my body would attract attention. I was worried as a feminist, that using my body would attract the wrong type of attention and people might take the wrong idea from it, but I’m a model, my body is my work.
Robyn Lawley: First plus-size model featured in Sports Illustrated
Mr Zarifeh said that after the girls went to the police, the Crown alleges Hitchcock opened Facebook pages, one titled ‘These two girls are stupid little sluts’, and another titled they were lying little sluts. They had a photo of the girls with rifle cross-hair sights over their faces, and he was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice by intimidating them.
Bondage claims in under-age sex trial
That’s what the ladies event is for. It’s about the women being able to enjoy themselves and having the experience of enjoying the day with their partner and as well as racing, to enjoy the things that we women love to do, which is shop and get dressed up.
Ladies glamour day at the Te Rapa races
- Marilyn Duckworth, Over the Fence Is Out. London: Hutchinson, 1970.
- Janet Frame, Intensive Care; a novel. New York: George Braziller, 1970.
- Joy Cowley, Man of straw. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.
- V.C. Andrews, Flowers in the Attic. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.
- Yvonne Todd, Creamy Psychology. City Gallery Wellington, December 2014–March 2015.