Is it just me or is Miranda Hart’s “Is It Just Me?” a teeny bit feminist?

Miranda Hart’s book Is It Just Me?[i] has been a Christmas 2012 best-seller, and Hart has just announced that she is writing a second volume, Peggy and Me[ii], featuring ‘adventures with her faithful dog Peggy’.  Is It Just Me addresses ‘the real coalface of life’ (p.17), with witty analysis of everyday embarrassments and confusions.  The narrative closely mirrors the style of Miranda Hart’s hit sitcom, Miranda (BBC 2009 -), which also topped the ratings this Christmas, beating off Downton Abbey, Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing. [iii]

Miranda Hart’s success on screen is remarkable considering the historical dominance of male comedy stars in sitcoms and the current gender imbalance on panel shows, but her work is also remarkable for its evocation of a different world view.  Academics are already beginning to pick up on this, with papers on Miranda at international conferences[iv], and Is It Just Me also merits more analysis.  While there is much lively humour here there are also several chapters which address feminist concerns about the beauty industry, body image and the social construction of femininity.  Let me just be clear, there is not a chapter which is actually titled ‘The Social Construction of Femininity’ – but the book as a whole does argue convincingly against consumer culture’s account of femininity as thin, passive and neurotic.  For example, in the chapter on ‘Beauty’, Hart addresses the concept of ‘taking myself seriously as a woman’, asking what that phrase entails:

Is it a fine lady scientist, a ballsy young anarchist with tights on her head or a feminist intellectual from the 1970s nose-down in Simone de Beauvoir?  Or is it what I think my friend meant when she said ‘woman’, which is really ‘aesthetic object’.  Clothes horse.  Show pony.  General beautiful piece of well-groomed stuff that’s lovely to look at? (pp.94-95)

What follows is a hilarious deconstruction of the rigours of feminine grooming, addressing spas, hairdressing salons and the beauty myth.  Most tellingly, Hart recounts the advantages for women of not being considered ‘beautiful’ – that it confers an invisibility which actually means we might have time to do something a bit more constructive than all that self-scrutiny and grooming.  Grooming itself, with its solipsistic focus on the self-regulating (aka somewhat paranoid) modern individual, is a telling word here; its other high-profile usage is in relation to paedophile abuse.

The complexities of social pressures are not ignored either.  In the chapter on ‘Bodies’ Hart addresses the pros and cons of being a tall woman – they are exactly the same, but understood positively and negatively, so that ‘You will never get lost in a crowd’ is both a strength and an embarrassment.  This is a pertinent issue, as in the process of becoming a high-profile television star (no pun intended) Hart has had to face a barrage of comments about her size.  She does not fit the conventions for a television star – she is not a ‘show pony’. Yet this positive account of women’s lives not just being about appearance has garnered Hart some significant bad press, most notably a piece in The Guardian by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett which argued that Hart’s paean to being ‘plain’ set up a ‘false dichotomy’: ‘What’s wrong with having brushed hair, clean knickers, a great sex life and an exceptional grasp of mental arithmetic?’[v].  What indeed.  Yet it is so rare to read or hear anyone arguing for the other side – that there might actually be some advantages to being of nonconformist personal appearance – that I see Is It Just Me? as a feminist text, not least because it notes the time that personal grooming can entail, both in terms of actual labour and in terms of head-space.

Cosslett’s column unfortunately chimes with more recent press and twitter commentaries which propose that Hart’s comedy is based on self-loathing and misogyny.  As Lucy Mangan argues in her response to this backlash against one of our most successful comedians, we should celebrate Miranda Hart’s achievements rather than criticize her for adopting a fairly standard comedic strategy.[vi]  It seems doubly important to keep that celebration going when women still have a statistically low presence on television, in stand-up and awards nominations.  The 2012 Chortle comedy awards shortlisted only 2 female acts out of a total of 54 nominations.[vii]  Comedy offers a particular space to individual women but television comedy series, panel shows and stand-up still seem to be a boys’ club.

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Lesbians Are Not Women – Monique Wittig; on the tenth anniversary of her death

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3rd January 2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Monique Wittig, one of feminism’s – and lesbianism’s – key philosophers, writers and activists.

 

Wittig fought for women’s rights in her native France and was a foundational member of what was to become the MLF (Mouvement de Libération des Femmes).  She co-organized the first action of the yet-to-be-named MLF at the University at Vincennes in May 1970 and wrote the manifesto circulated there, entitled ‘Pour un mouvement de libération des femmes’.  She took part in the MLF’s first major public demonstration at the Arc de Triomphe later the same year, one of ten women who laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to remember ‘the one more unknown than the unknown soldier, his wife’.

 

After helping to shape the women’s movement in France, however, Wittig’s developing theory of the concept of ‘lesbian’ through her fiction and criticism was ultimately to lead to a split between her radical lesbian position, and what she saw as the (hetero-)feminist theories based on the idea of difference between women and men that many of her contemporaries were forwarding.  Her most famous and contentious statement ‘lesbians are not women’, first made in a paper delivered at an MLA conference in 1978, is based upon the logic that ‘women’ only make sense in heterosexual systems of thought, related economically and politically to ‘men’. Because a lesbian is allocated a position outside of the heteronormative structure, she can use this position to disrupt that centre from the outside. The statement reclaims the historically well-worn negative connotations of lesbians as not ‘real’ women, faux men etc. and attempts to celebrate the strengths that originate from a conceptual position outside of the norms.  Her ideas on the intertwined relationship between discourses (language; acts; social structures) and the material, real-life conditions of lesbians and women greatly influenced Judith Butler, a theorist whose 1990 Gender Trouble continues to shape feminist and queer thinking. Butler’s engaged critique of Wittig in that work is softened in her later writings where she comes to understand Wittig a little differently. Without Wittig the landscape of gender theory today might look very different yet she is sadly frequently left out of dominant feminist narratives. 

 

As a creative writer, too, Wittig was radical.  Her novels and plays are experimental and challenging in terms of language, form and content.  Her first novel, L’opoponax (1964) won Frances’s Prix Médicis, one of the country’s most prestigious literary prizes.  This novel was written entirely in the present tense and deconstructs many of the conventions associated with its subject matter, ostensibly the story of a childhood, by employing a distanced and impersonal narrator and having multiple characters that seem to flow into one another.  Her most famous novel, perhaps, is her third novel, Le corps lesbien (1973).  This book is remarkable in that it extends her play with what a novel form can look like and what it can be about.  Wittig creates a new language and form to depict the lesbian body. Bodily boundaries are fluid, humans merging into mythical creatures and one another in this fantastical world. All of Wittig’s novels are available in English (and other) translations.

 

Sources and recommendations

 

Wittig’s novels are recommended! Find out about them, and more about Wittig, here: http://www.moniquewittig.com/

Many of Wittig’s key essays are collected in: Wittig, Monique, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1992)

 

Epps, Brad and Jonathan Katz, ‘Monique Wittig: At the Crossroads of Criticism’, Special Issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.4 (2007)

 

Shaktini, Namascar, ed., On Monique Wittig: Theoretical, Political and Literary Essays (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005)