She started it!

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel discussion after the screening in Wellington of the documentary She Started It as part of NZ Tech Week 2018. The film’s been around for a while but it remains an insightful production that is pretty much a ‘must see’ for women in the tech startup scene. I thought it a riveting piece of journalism covering a range of scenarios that are uncomfortably familiar having co-founded one myself. I was grateful to the organisers Xero because it made me look at my own journey in a whole new light.

She Started It takes a film camera inside the lives of five young female entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they go through the set pieces that are fundamental to any ambitious founder — pitching to Angel and VC investors, building teams and finding ways of getting their products to market. Some of them succeeded, some failed. The film captures their reactions to unfolding circumstances — the tears as well as  the laughter. It’s  an intimate, sometimes verging on voyeuristic invitation to walk a mile in their shoes.

The real power of the documentary lies in not shying away from the soul shrinking tough times when other people don’t get your vision and you are quite literally living on the smell of an oily rag. She Started It doesn’t pull any punches about the sheer grit it takes to get a new product off the ground. I was glad the directors weren’t tempted to sugar coat the message. It’s said that 99% of new business fail — even the best ideas, from the most determined, visionary and capable people are not guaranteed to make it. Caveat ‘wantrepreneur’ huh?!

As a secondary theme, directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed explored the nitty problem of female under representation in entrepreneurship, and the gender-based issues women entrepreneurs have to overcome. That too struck a strong chord with my own experiences. A co-founder of my business was told by a key player in NZ’s investment community not to bother even trying because she couldn’t make it as a woman in tech! When we started pitching the angel networks in NZ eight years ago, there were hardly ever any women in the room, investors or founders, and I believe from the bottom of my soul we would have raised more money initially if we had different chromosomes.

As the film played out, the story that caught me most was that of Thuy Trurong who had made her mark in her native Vietnam founding and running a chain of frozen yoghurt outlets. This intrepid twenty-eight-year-old Vietnamese woman moved herself and her team from Vietnam to Silicon Valley at a week’s notice to join the iconic 500startups program. Her company at the time, GreenGar, produced mobile apps including Whiteboard, a collaborative drawing application. Whiteboard achieved over nine million downloads in its first four years, was used by school students in more than 100 countries and achieved profits greater than a million US. Despite its seeming success, the team failed to bring in the capital required to scale it and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, she had to go back to Vietnam and compose, “the hardest email I’ve ever written” to GreenGar’s loyal base telling them they were closing down. It was incredibly poignant, and I was drawn into her disappointment, but also her steely determination not to be ground down by the experience as she started thinking about her next venture.

Facing that terrible, gut-wrenching moment when you have to accept that the thing you’ve poured your lifeblood into is just not working is horrible. Really and truly and viscerally horrible. My sister and I launched a satirical magazine in the early 2000s. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle. We called it SHREW Magazine. Conceptualizing and researching it and building the stratospheric business plan which depicted a worldwide SHREW membership spending whopping amounts in our SHREW Shop. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.

Throughout, we worked like demented beings — I think was writing something like 25,000 published words a month — and my sister and insanely talented (sometimes just plain insane) friend were cranking out idiotic spoof ads and other glorious send ups from our crew of invented and totally outrageous Op Ed contributors. I remember editorial meetings when we were quite literally crying with laughter as we brainstormed things like how you would create the graphic representation of You Really Are What You Eat and Drink. OK, I know, you had to be there. But for us, it was glorious and funny, and we were on the mission we seemed to have been born for with our combined skill set and slightly offbeat take on the world. Of course, we crammed way too much content into each edition, so we would have likely burnt out if money wasn’t a factor, but the inspiration and ideas flowed like ‘Bolly’ in an episode of Ab Fab, and the joy of creation fueled the energy to keep the frenetic pace up.

The day the boxes of our first edition arrived and we were able to see our posters in our stockists’ windows was beyond exciting. And the launch party?  Well, that was another t was  was a night I will never forget. We expected people to be mildly amused but were totally floored after we handed out copies to our guests when the entire theater (we had the party on stage at an opera house) went silent as people started to read … then the laughter erupted, and we knew we’d created something incredible. It wasn’t just us founders who loved it. Our printers raved, the team at the distributor said they couldn’t wait to get at the next edition when it arrived from the printer, and our readers and subscribers … laughed on cue.

So, what went wrong? For a start, our timing was poor. I strongly believe that timing is everything and we were a couple of years too early with our offer. Thinking about it, we also could have been a decade too late. Either way, our timing sucked and the wrong time is the wrong time!  If we’d launched even a couple of years later, we’d have created it as an online product and then been able to amp it up through the emerging social channels like Facebook. To us, SHREW was as much a club as a magazine. It would have been incredibly effective in an online environment where we could, with a bit of additional investment, have created the SHREW World that lived in our heads. Taking it online would also have made it a tech startup at a time when angel funding for such things was starting to be available … even on occasion for female founders!

Lacking this scenario, it came into being as a MOFO of a full colour 60-page magazine.   We relied on hard-hitting content to and the club-like atmosphere to speak for itself and quickly build a cult following. We believed we could achieve the Holy Grail of the publishing world —  a rapidly growing, loyal subscriber base that would remove the need for us to sell our souls to get advertising dollars that might have compromised our editorial freedom to tell it like we saw it. The issue here of course was lack of working capital to promote the bejesus out of our magazine. Not much point having a genius product no one knows about!

This wasn’t quite as random as it sounded. There have been some great publications that have worked on a model like ours. Most of the memorable ones have been primarily targeted at … er … men. And what’s wrong with us women that we’re so spot-welded to celebrity gossip, superficiality and the outrageous claims of pseudo-science? Anyway, we emulated iconic and commercially successful alternative publications like Private Eye and Viz in the UK. We even approached the publishers of Viz to seek backing as we figured our SHREW Magazine would be a perfect stable-mate. They pretty much laughed at us saying women would never go for it. Depressing though that was, it didn’t in any way damp our enthusiasm because we passionately believed there were like minded others out there who wanted something different, if only we could find them. As it turned out, we weren’t delusional in thinking this, we just couldn’t get to enough of them, quickly enough. The monthly print costs were unsustainable and, after five incredible editions — we had the sixth finished ready to roll — we had no choice but to call time because we had run out of runway.

People in the startup community talk glibly about the virtues of the ‘fast fail’. While it’s logical and eminently sensible to remove the life support when the condition is clearly terminal, it completely trivializes the emotional impact of doing it. Like Thuy,  pulling the plug on GreenGar, closing our magazine was one of the hardest things any of us ever had to do. We did revisit the concept a few years later and try to take it online but the moment had passed. We were no longer the same people who’d tapped into the sparking, pacy narrative of the original — it was a mistake to exhume the corpse because the magic our earlier selves had conjured up had died with it.

In common with the women in the film, I seem to have some deep-rooted and obsessive need to bring new ideas to the world or to forge my own destiny. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Since the magazine venture, I’ve been co-founder of two tech startups.  One wasn’t commercially successful, but spawned the other . Eight years on, the jury’s still out on this one.

The truth is that most entrepreneurs don’t find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even after ‘serial’ attempts. The Big Buck outcomes we read so much about, which entice and tantalize and keep you in the game busting stupid hours, sucking up shitloads of stress and sleepless nights are rare. Statistically, most of us are lucky if we make any more than we might had done if we’d stayed in regular jobs, likely less.

So why do we keep on keeping on? I believe it’s not uncommon for successful entrepreneurs to became so hooked on the adrenalin of growing a global business that they resort to gambling as a substitute when they exit their ventures. I understand that. Making something that’s never existed before is one hell of a blast. That burst of creative energy it takes to get it off the ground delivers a better high than any substance I’ve tried. Better even than the endorphins from a good work out. It has to, to make up for the frequent times along the way when you stare into the abyss wondering if you’re really prepared to lose not just one shirt, but your whole wardrobe.

The stakes are most definitely high, but the compulsion to see your dream start come alive holds an allure it’s hard to describe. Of course, if you do achieve the big pay out you’re a visionary and completely vindicated in taking the risks. If you don’t make it … well … you can always sell your should and resort to dressing it up as a fast fail!

 

Watch She Started It

Cover Image from Are Female Entrepreneurs Set Up to Fail — great article and worth a read.

I feel pretty

I don’t know about you, but I’m a glass at least completely full kinda gal. My rose-tinted glasses perch pertly on my aquiline nose as I ignore inconvenient truths that don’t sit with my world view. This is particularly true when it comes to my own self-image. As I’ve got older, I’ve become adept at a sort of cat and mouse game with my credulity which allows me to accept the ageing process with, if not unbounded joy — who’d believe that? — with the sort of equanimity you’d expect from a seal lazing on the rocks in the sun. If that sounds like denial, yup, guilty as charged.

Seriously, it’s not like my inner person feels any different. It’s only the wrapper that’s showing signs of dishevelment. On the contrary the — whatever one calls it, inner goddess? — is mostly (I have my share of ‘bad hair’ days like everyone else) in good shape. She’s timeless and I see her as something like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wonder Woman. A sort of ‘blue stocking’ superhero; clever, gorgeous and most definitely fresh from the fight. I’d say that’s not a bad combo to draw on at times of self-doubt and uncertainty. And she’s a great chick to party with when the good times roll. I admire flamboyance and flair in women. She’s all that … on speed!

Which brings me to my point. Over the last few years, I’ve had on-going conversations with women in my orbit about the whole invisibility thing that many women experience as they age. It saddens me to know that a wide variety of women think this is inevitable and there’s nothing they can do about it. “It is what it is,” they say. “It’s as certain as a cluster of Khardashians appearing the minute a red carpet is rolled out.” For sure there are exceptions — clearly there are an enormous number of middle-aged or older women in the public eye who can’t be said to be invisible. But even the most successful and famous women are likely to be fighting a rear-guard action against the impact and perception of age on their value as people and overall bankability as commercial prospects.

This acceptance of invisibility is something I take strong issue with because I don’t believe it is inevitable. I think it’s a received wisdom that many of us turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So why do we do this? Given how society rates, or more accurately under-rates women in pretty much every way imaginable and how ‘hot’ we are figures largely in which doors open for us. In this context, as our ‘pulling power’ diminishes with age it becomes progressively harder get over the bar of beauty stereotypes. This is particularly true as great swathes of people … er … men that would be … start to look through us or around us as if we have not further contribution make. It becomes all too easy to pull on the cape of invisibility rather than having to run the gauntlet of society’s preconceptions and stereotypes about middle aged and older women.

I have a wonderful collection of humorous greetings cards I put together in my early thirties. My group of close friends and I were going through that “all men are bastards, who needs one anyway?” disillusioned-with-love phase. Something of a contradiction as the one thing most of us wanted to have in our lives was the extremely illusive Mr. Right. At the time, most of us were divorced or had recently been spat out of a reasonably long-term relationship. We solaced each other by sourcing cards with such pithy philosophical statements as, If they can get one man up on the moon, why can’t they get them all up there? and You’re not alone honey, my shampoo lasts longer than my men. We’d fax them to each other for comfort — this was the era before e-mail forwards were endemic and scanners were still only found in Accident and Emergency Wards.

Recently, I re-discovered this collection whilst looking for something else. Flicking through them, one card jumped out at me as if it had a life of its own: Wrinkled wasn’t one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I have to say my brain responded to this statement as if it was a direct quote from Revelations. Of course, back in the day, the discovery of even one facial wrinkle was a drama which made headline events like the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall seem like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We were at the peak of our physical beauty, so it was all a bit of an affectation. But there is a real dichotomy in the aging process and an interesting review this week about the movie I Feel Pretty prompted some in depth navel-gazing. I haven’t seen this movie and I probably won’t on the basis of the reviews, but friends who have found it to be just what it says on the tin — a humorous, laugh-out-loud romp. The reviewer looked at it through a darker lens.

The central tenet of the movie is that looks don’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. No argument from me with that. That it’s lack of confidence that holds women back professionally and personally, not discrimination or how we look. That for today’s thoroughly modern Maleficent it’s all about feeling better, not looking better, although looking better is a likely bi-product. It’s this bit the reviewer was taking exception to and I’d have to agree because it seems as obvious as the balls on a tall dog (if you’ll forgive the crudity) that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer have never been higher.

But the insidious thing is that it’s becoming taboo to acknowledge this — beauty standard denialism is gaining traction. This is said to be fuelled by cynical corporates re-packaging standard beauty lines as health and wellness products, blatantly ignoring the continued pressure on looks. Fine, if women really are embracing their inner beauty and only starve themselves, work out obsessively and fork out small fortunes on appearance enhancements because it they want to and because it makes them feel a deeper sense of self-worth. Not so fine if they’re being duped. I’d say there’s a fast one being pulled here that we should start wising up. We may live in the ‘post truth’ world, but there are limits!

As BBC film critic, Will Gompertz observed, “The greatest shame is how the movie misses the chance to really skewer the serious issue it attempts to address, namely the debilitating and isolating mental health conditions such as body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression, which are made significantly worse by the relentless objectification of women by the media and business. In fact, bafflingly, the film ends up pandering to exactly the same fascistic thinking that promotes the fallacy only people with a certain body type will be successful and admired.’

I’d say this is particularly true for older women. As things are going, there will come a time when, if we decide to age naturally, we risk being marginalized somewhere in our thirties and be fighting a war of attrition against increasing invisibility from there until we drop. Jobs and potential partners will be the sole preserve of our younger-looking contemporaries. And heaven help the less affluent as they age and can’t afford to join the young-old elite!

Despite the need to suspend disbelief and a serious question mark about its writer’s grasp on reality, I like the premise of I Feel Pretty. I believe strongly that, like Intel, most of the good stuff should be on the inside and that inner beauty, strength and resilience are the bedrock of happy, healthy lives. We most definitely should take care of ourselves because we want to and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing. Wonderful, if this also makes us feel pretty and helps us stay visible as we age … because we really are worth it.

I blame Coco Chanel!

Clearly I don’t blame La Chanel for everything! She probably can’t be held responsible for Altzheimers … or global warming … or weapons of mass destruction … or reality TV … or Weinstein, Trump et al … or … etc.

In fact, in many ways Coco Chanel was entirely admirable. She had a phenomenal impact on womens’ lives leading their liberation from the constraints of the ‘corsette sillouhette’ to a more sporty casual look that became the standard of feminine style. There was the classic Chanel suit, the ‘go anywhere’ little black dress. Oh yes, and bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, turtleneck sweaters, trench coats … the list goes on. She also made costume jewellery fashionable.

At its peak, the Chanel couture empire employed 3,500. Coco Chanel is the only fashion designer listed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and her achievements have provided inspiration for aspiring career women and female entrepreneurs over the decades. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the ultra-chic and oh-so-famous Chanel must take the blame for some things. To be clear, I’m not talking all that stuff about her being a collaborator and shagging important Germans during WWII, which somewhat un-gilds this otherwise fragrant lily’s legacy. Rather, I’m talking the fact that she has been attributed with making the sun tan fashionable.

With New Zealand heading into summer and the winter outer layers of camouflage clothing being peeled away like so many onion rings, the inconvenient and inescapable truth rears its ugly head; you really are what you eat and drink. After a winter of over-indulgence, I’m contemplating the somewhat depressing and inevitable results and the looming horror of skimpy summer clothes. Clearly, it’s time to reach for the self-tanner and attempt to conceal some of the evidence. But why do I think that being tanned will be an improvement? Fashion that’s why, and it’s all Chanel’s fault!

Chanel regularly vacationed with all the beautiful people in St. Tropez, Cap d’Antibes, Monte Carlo and the other sun-laden playgrounds of the rich and famous that make up the French Riviera. The legend has it that during one of these celeb hangouts on a cruise to Cannes 1923 she unintentionally got sunburnt. Hard to imagine this ultra sophisticated woman all lobster red and peeling, but that’s the story. By the time she got back to Paris, this unwanted blight had turned into what we now know as a tan. This happened at a time when Parisians had also fallen in love with legendary singer Josephine Baker, described at the time as being “caramel-skinned”. The combined social currency of both women sparked a trend; tans became cool and synonymous with health, wealth and luxury in western society.

Cashing in on this new trend, Jean Patou lunched the first sun tan oil “Huile de Chaldee” in 1927 and started a whole new industry of tan-related products. These were designed to help the tidal wave of people who wanted to look as if they were in with the in crowd but didn’t have the in crowd’s available leisure time or money to achieve the desired bronzing. This new trend was a stampede away from the previous peaches and cream beauty standard for caucasian society women who wouldn’t even consider going outside without a parasol — their privideged whiter shade of pale differentiated them as ‘quality’ from the laboring classes with their telltale ruddy complexions from too much time spent outdoors. Many of them even lived in far-flung outposts of empire where they had to contend with the blazing sunshine of tropical climates. For these women, preserving their complexions was a Herculean task, which they stuck to with the tenacity of my late and much beloved Springer Spaniel Oscar on the scent of a possum.

Of course, once the tan became fashionable, there was no going back. Beach clothes shrank in size —disappeared altogether on some beaches — and tanning became a leisure time activity in its own right. The obsession with being tanned led to sun beds, self-tanners, spray on and brush on tanning lotions. Thankfully the ones available now are a vast improvement on the eyesore tangerine tones first on offer and generally associated with those 70s and 80s-spawned medallion men with curly perms. And Trump of course, the leader time forgot, who seems to be stuck in an 80s time warp on just about every count.

But it all still comes back to fashion and perception. Fashion dictates, so shall it be. There was a reason for all those open-shirted men exposing their hairy chests. Fashion! So what, you may well ask? Well, the trouble with fashion is that it’s so easy to become a slave to it. The whole self-image thing for people with less than sculpted bodies springs to mind. The tyrany of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-polka-dot-bikini is one thing. Without putting too fine a point on it, a tan just seems to improve any pale skinned body no matter how fat, thin, wrinkly, wobbly or droopy it might be. But people can also become fashion victims. In the context of tanning, there’s the accelerated ageing effects of too much intense sunlight. It is likely that wrinkled wasn’t something most of us aspired to be when we grew up and over-exposure to UV rays is a sure-fired way of ending up with a face that looks like a relief map of the planet.

Vanity is a wonderful diffuser of logic. I’m thinking the received wisdom of ages — you have to suffer to be beautiful. But risking death in beauty’s name takes this concept to a ludicrous extreme. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.To be fair to Chanel, in common with many other fun things that have been rumbled over the last few decades like smoking, drinking and sugar, back in her heyday, getting a tan wasn’t ‘scientifically proven’ to be bad for you. She wasn’t burdened with the knowledge of the co-relation between sun and skin cancer. Nor did she live in the Southern Hemisphere under a hole in the ozone layer where burn times in high summer can be as little as 12 minutes and the prospect of melanoma is an everyday concern. For sure, this is all slightly tongue in cheek, but the risk of melanoma most definitely isn’t a joke.

In any case, and somewhat paradoxically, sunshine in the right quantities is very good for us. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin D and the feel-good factor of summer and sunshine is hard to underestimate. It’s even — allegedly — an effective aphrodisiac. But the best thing is that sunshine is an equal opportunities commodity. You don’t need to be wealthy, educated to within an inch of your life or live anywhere special to enjoy it — although some places have a lot more than others. It’s an option for old and young, fat and thin, socialist and capitalist, man and woman (on either of their separate planets) and people from any ethnicity or minority group — why else would there be Birquinis? Such irony in the French response to those!

The tan retains its allure but nowadays conditions apply. Parents slip, slap and slop sun block on their kids and bundle them up in rash suits to keep them safe from the sun, whilst still benefitting from it. All cosmetic ranges have products with built in UV protection. The basting sun oils are still there, but 30+ sun blocks dominate the sun cream categories and there are great cosmetic products that can achieve a ‘natural glow’ as if from the sun.

I still love sunshine. In fact, as soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m heading out into it. But times change. In my tan-obsessed youth in London, we actually swopped tactics about how to get and stay tanned. These generally included a cheap, early summer ‘bucket shop’ holiday with a drift of friends at one of a number of Mediterranean resorts to get the all important foundation tan that would set us up for the summer. A week of serious sloth, spot-welded to our sun loungers, basting ourselves and turning on our bodily axes like so many roasting chooks, then falling into the water when the heat and boredom got the better of us. OK I exaggerate, but I’m sure you get the picture. After that, through the summer we would continue to chase opportunities for ‘topping up’. Topping up consisted of ‘pegging out’ as we used to call it, on our roof decks or in back gardens slathered in frying oil on any sunny day that happened to coincide with a day off work or hitting the park nearest to work at lunchtime and shedding as many clothes as the standards of decency in the 80s allowed.

This was at a time when it was still considered a bit ‘not done’ for female professionals to go bare-legged to work, even in extreme heat of the summer. My peers and I were in the vanguard of the change, with hard won acceptance based on baring legs that were bronzed (naturally or artificially) rather than the sort of blue white so beloved of washing powder manufacturers. The getting of a tan at times seemed like an obsession and certainly an intricate part of our then beauty regimes. Not being tanned in summer was as unthinkable as …er … that we’ll all wake up and find that Brexit was just a dream.

These days, my sun worshipping is more muted and often limited to a long walk in a wildlife sanctuary where the dappled sunlight filters through the beautiful native bush and makes exotic patterns on the pathways. I still get the benefits from the all-imporant vitamin C without the risks. In any case, in this part of the world, it’s hard not to get tanned simply by spending any time outside. That’s good because I will always prefer the suntanned look to the alternative. The preconditioning runs deep. But while I am clearly a still a bit of a slave to fashion, I certainly don’t intend to be a victim to in. Pity I didn’t have so much common sense earlier. Might have had a few less wrinkles!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… get it out with Optrex!

 

My elder sister went to art school. On one of her first visits home, she made us laugh with tales of the spectacular graffiti in the women’s toilettes. The one that has stuck with me through the years was “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, get it out with Optrex”. What a great observation! Still makes me smile. And wouldn’t it be great it were true?

If the imprint of beauty could be removed from the eye of the beholder with the simple application of a drop of Optrex how different the world might be? Imagine if Paris had bathed his eyes after his first sighting of Helen — he might never have abducted her and caused her husband Menelaus to launch the 10-year Trojan War to get her back. In that parallel universe, we might still be able to visit Troy. What about Mark Antony whose torrid liaison with Cleopatra ultimately handed ascendency in Rome post-Caesar to Octavian (or Agustus as he was to become) transitioning Rome from Republic to Empire? If Rome had stayed true to its republican virtues instead of dissolving into the lassitude of the late Empire that had no fight in it left when the Vandals came knocking at its gates. If the empire had not fallen, how different would the course of Western History have been? If an eye-drop could have prevented Henry VIII from falling in love with Anne Boleyn and out of love with the Catholic Church (which actually wouldn’t have existed in the earlier scenario if Rome had not fallen), there might not have been a Reformation and we might all still be living in the dark ages deprived of the flowering of the first Elizabethan era.

Optrex wasn’t introduced to the market until the 1930’s so even if it could wash beauty from the hapless beholder’s eye, it was too late to for Troy and Rome. It’s not all bad though, Henry’s VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn helped gave us the double whammy of the Reformation and Elizabeth’s amazing reign. In any case, it’s clear that Optrex actually can’t do any such thing, as people have continued to fall in love with the same frequency and occasionally shocking consequences as they did before it’s introduction in the thirties.

I like the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder because it allows for the possibility that every one of us can be beautiful to someone. Other than Helen, I’m not entirely clear that any of those spectacular women I’ve just mentioned would be described as classic beauties in the Venus de Milo tradition. Rather their attractiveness and power seems to have stemmed more from their beguiling personalities bringing together intelligence, vivacity, and elegance as well as alluring physical charms. However it’s defined, when we think about beauty, it’s more likely to be the drop-dead gorgeous variety which makes the hormones race rather than the inner type which has a slower burning fuse. Think about it, there’s Angelina Jolie and there’s Dame Judy Dench. While Dame Judy is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, she’s never been in La Jolie’s league physically. Even in her younger days, Dame Judy’s beauty was, like Intel, largely on the inside. I’m sure their mothers loved them equally (although, reading the gossip mags, that may not actually be true), but only one of them had the world (and for many years the divine Brad Pitt) at her feet because of her Helenesque loveliness. It has to be said that unlike the mythical Menelaus, Brad does not appear to have been so beguiled by Angelina that he set out with a flotilla of 1,000 ships to get her back when they broke up. Of course, the peerless Dame Judy also has long had a proportion of the world at her feet, but the adoration is more based on admiration of her art than her drop-dead gorgeousness. That’s not to say that la belle Jolie can’t act, clearly she can, and well. But that skill often gets lost in the hysteria surrounding her looks, eating habits and choices of mate.

Kids at school know the truth — generally before the 17 years it took Janis Ian to understand “that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear skinned smiles”. Everyone in the playground knows who the cute, adorable ones are. Unfair though it is, beautiful children who grow into beautiful people get more attention, more opportunities and generally more of everything than others. Sifting through articles on the subject, other than the relative ease of finding top quality mates, it’s evident that BPs experience many other advantages. Attractive students get higher grades. Banks and other institutions loan more readily to the lookers (who apparently are less likely to default). In mock criminal trials physically attractive ‘defendants’ are less likely to be convicted and the ones that are get lighter sentences. The BP brigade earns more than their less attractive peers by as much as 10 percent. All of this is hardly news, more like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but in a world where at least a proportion of it’s global citizens are genuinely seeking social equity, this is just another example of the playing field not being even. There’s even is a word for it — lookism. Who knew?

I remember seeing a programme in the early 2000s presented by John Cleese – The Human Face —  which set out to show that there is a mathematical formula for why someone like Liz Hurley (who was Cleese’s muse through the narrative) is so incredibly gorgeous. They used computer technology to aggregate images of many faces into a composite that was considered to be the distillation of the human face at its most beautiful. As I recall, this mathematical grid arrived at heart-shaped face, which the wide range of beauties they then superimposed on the grid all conformed to including the more famous Liz (Taylor), Marilyn, Greta et al.

Youth and beauty, both male and female, have been potent currency since us humans first walked the planet. However unfair, it’s simply a fact of life. But there is also a downside. BPs have to live with the knowledge that they are often not judged on the terms they wish to be. I knew a woman in London who was a Julie Christie look alike. She was truly ravishing — to the point that when she was talking to you, it was hard not to get mesmerised and lose track of what she was saying. It was almost like being under a spell and you just got lost in the glory of looking at her. She said very few people (men or women) looked below the surface to see who she really was as a person. Our circle expected her to marry some A Lister, financial whizz or other distinguished personage. How superficial of us! Eventually she married a really likeable, but pretty run-of-the-mill dude, because she said he actually saw her as a person, not just a beautiful façade and that was good enough for her. In addition to always being taken at face value, as St. Augustine observed, “beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” Presumably Moors Murderer Ian Bradley found Myra Hyndley (“the most evil woman in Britain”) drop dead gorgeous in the beginning.

Coming back to the opening, if beauty like that possessed by Helen of Troy, Angelina Jolie or Liz Hurley were the only currency for attraction, our species would have become extinct long-since. Imagine the slaughter in Trojan-type wars fought over the limited pool of available lovelies, leaving the rest of us withering on the vine of solitary childlessness and the species unable to reproduce itself. The upside would be that we would have perished sublimely unaware of ticking of The Doomsday Clock as it endlessly re-calibrates the current and very real threats — WMDs, climate change or Donald Trump — that could conspire to destroy us! Thankfully, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, allowing even self professed “ugly duckling girls” like Janis Ian to shine for someone and no amount of Optrex will ever make that different.

Where’s the ‘honour’ in killing?

A few years ago I wrote a novelette — shorter than a novella and longer than a short story — about Anne Boleyn’s last days. Recently I read something that caused me to dust off this minor opus and look at it through a slightly different lens; not just as the story of one wronged woman, but as a story that is part of a deeper context of all wronged women.

Anne Boleyn’s story has always moved me. The Anger of Princes is Death was an attempt to imagine how this extraordinary woman’s last days and hours might have unfolded. What on earth would go through your mind as you walk towards a scaffold where a swordsman is waiting to hack your head from your body? You are an anointed queen and you have sworn before God you are innocent of the charges against you. Your trial was a trumped up farce — you weren’t even allowed the right to defend yourself. Most of your friends and family have deserted you. In many cases, they even testified against you. A man who once loved you with a passion that caused him to move heaven and earth to marry you signed your death warrant and is now waiting eagerly for the cannon fire that will tell him he’s free to marry his new love. Your adored brother and some of your dearest friends — cited as your lovers —have already been tried and killed.

It must surely have been a gruesome vigil waiting for your date with death. Then finally, the last short but seemingly interminable walk from The Queen’s Apartments in the Tower of London to the scaffold. A walk not of shame as your enemies saw it, but of turbulent emotions — a desperate wish to cling to life mixed with a profound longing for the ordeal to be over.

And yet, witnesses say Anne Boleyn took those last few steps to her death with dignity and self-control, and without protest against the system that had condemned her. Many contemporaries saw Anne’s execution as the cynical killing of a woman, who was ‘past her sell-by-date’ and who’d become an inconvenient nuisance to Henry VIII, a view point most historians now agree with. Every time I think about it, I’m disturbed all over again. It’s not as if I knew her or she were my friend or even a friend of a friend. It’s nearly five centuries since this drama unfolded, but her ghost haunts me because of the circumstances and the overwhelming feeling of injustice involved.

It has to be said that Royal Courts, such as that of Henry VIII were notoriously visceral. Power and wealth were there for the taking through service to the monarch, but much pride went before many falls for people who over-reached. Anne Boleyn’s dazzling rise and spectacular plummet is just one example. While the other beheading of a queen of Henry’s, Katherine Howard, his fourth wife and Anne’s first cousin, is still a repulsive act, there isn’t the same sense of injustice because the evidence of adultery is very compelling. Few at the time or since really questioned her guilt. She was a foolish girl and paid a very high price for her folly. While one can argue a whole bunch of things about the wrongness of any form of death penalty, by the norms of the day, she was likely guilty of a capital offence.

Anne Boleyn however, was anything but a foolish girl. She was a spirited woman of the Renaissance. Talented, well educated and intellectually curious, Anne is credited with playing a significant part in the Reformation of the Church in England through her friendship with and advocacy of some of its leading figures and her influence on Henry VIII. It is likely the worst she was actually guilty of was over-arching ambition, arrogance and the inability to produce a male heir for her mercurial and often cruel husband. It seems Henry did convince himself somewhat conveniently that the charges against her were true and while he expressed outrage at her betrayal, the reality seems to be that he had fallen out of love with her and Anne’s execution opened up the possibility of his marriage to someone else who could legitimately bear him heirs.

There are few monarchs or rulers in history that can match the beguiling awfulness of Henry VIII who cemented the House of Tudor on the English throne after the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). His reign became notorious for his break with the Church of Rome in order to marry Anne Boleyn, after which he made himself head of the Church in England and dissolved the abbeys, significantly enriching his exchequer. Under his watch came the Reformation which caused deep religious divisions in the country and a growing pile of corpses belonging to the many people who didn’t agree with him, most famously Thomas More, his one time friend. And then there were his celebrated marital excesses. The sheer theatricality of the six wives, two of whom were careless enough to end up without their heads, retains a morbid fascination that often eclipses the much more significant events that were taking place.

My interest in history goes as far back as I can remember. But as a kid, the concept of history was little more than a parade of kings, queens, princes and princesses and my friends and I fixated on the ‘gory’ bits. Henry VIII provided endless grist to our imaginative little mills. We used to recite the old “divorced (Catherine of Aragon) … beheaded (Anne Boleyn) … died (Jane Seymour) … divorced (Anne of Cleves) … beheaded (Katherine Howard) … survived (Catherine Parr)” mnemonic in primary school to remember their order. Technically of course, divorce is incorrect as the marriages were annulled, but that was too complicated for children playing Henry VIII and his wives in a school playground! Even as a child it was easy to feel that the last wife, Catherine Parr, had a lucky escape when Henry died and she could marry her true love, Thomas Seymour. But Anne Boleyn was always the romantic heroine of the piece and we all fought to be the one to play her.

I digress. Through the ages, most royal and noble women have been considered and treated as little more than chattels. They moved from the domination of their father to that of their husband and often they had no or little say in whom that would be. Their principle duties were to be virgins at the time of the marriage, reproduce as often as possible, remaining faithful till death so there could be no question about the legitimacy of their children. For the wives of kings, adultery was treasonous and generally carried the death penalty. Very Game of Thrones! (George RR Martin apparently drew his inspiration from the Wars of The Roses.)

But looking at Anne Boleyn’s treatment through my different lens, I see shades of what we now call ‘honour killing’. This is defined as the killing of a family member by other members of the family, due to their belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or has violated the principles of a community or religion. One of the most common ‘crimes against honour’ is of course adultery, although there are many others. In Anne’s case, mirroring that of so many other women before and since, alleged charges — if you exclude the testimony of a young musician gained under torture — were all that were needed to convict her.

The concept of killing adulterous wives and unchaste daughters has a long and inglorious history and is by no means limited to practitioners of fundamental religions. Some examples include The Lex Julia de Adulteris Coercendis enacted by Caesar Augustus which gave the Roman pater familias the right, as a point of honour, to kill his unmarried sexually active daughters or his adulterous wife. Aztec and Inca societies apparently punished adultery by death. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 made it legal for husbands to murder unfaithful wives and partners, but wives did not have the same right in respect of adulterous husbands. Scarily, this law wasn’t formally repealed until 1975 although it’s hard to imagine any court by then condoning such murders! The Napoleonic Code inspired similar legislation in some of the Middle Eastern countries where France’s influence was strong. Throughout Mediterranean Europe the concept of familial and community honour was a way of life and defined the lives, customs and values of many peoples — the Sicilian Mafia being just one example.

What’s so insidious about honour killing is the whole vicious cycle: the killers often take pride or self-righteous justification in their actions, the community leaders protect the killers and the authorities connive the cover up. While it isn’t only women that are killed for honour, women are its main victims. Apparently, instances of this barbaric practice are on the rise. It’s unconscionable in this day and age that, all over the world, women from all walks of life, irrespective of class, ethnicity or religious background are treated as the property of the men with the power of life and death over them. You don’t even have to be a prince for your anger to mean death!

Clearly writing a short story about a long-dead queen does nothing to change this. But re-reading my story, reminded me of the on-going need to speak up against inequality wherever it occurs, particularly when it’s based on outdated and frankly ridiculous concepts of masculine honour and pride. Death is just the most extreme outcome for such women in a world where life is not fair and there is no justice to be had.

If you’d like to read my small, but perfectly formed novellette, The Anger of Princes is Death, it’s available as a kindle book on Amazon. 

I’m sorry, you’re not equal!

I read an on-the-money article in the NY Times after the womens’ marches on 21 January. Another one of those ‘I wish I’d said that’ scenarios. Apparently a post had been doing the rounds on social media along the lines of “I’m am not a disgrace to women because I don’t support the march … I do not feel I am a second class citizen because I am a woman … “

Dina Leygerman’s piece was a blistering masterpiece of yeah right! Although it was largely a blast at American women in the American context, it resonated strongly with me because truth is truth wherever you are. Dina took no hostages in rebutting the idea that we’re equal — ‘wrapped in your delusion of equality’ — citing statistics about abuse, objectification, unequal pay and opportunities to back up her commentary. She also listed many of the American giants on whose shoulders we’ve stood to be able to make our own choices, speak and be heard, vote, work, control our bodies, and defend ourselves and our families.

Co-incidentally I went to a funeral last week that was celebrating the life of Dame Laurie Salas, one of New Zealand’s own giants who fought tirelessly for human rights, gender equality, nuclear disarmament and peace throughout her long life. I didn’t know Dame Laurie. I sing in the same choir that one of her daughters does, and this daughter put out an all points bulleting asking if any of the choir would be able to sing at her mother’s funeral. Being your own boss does have some real advantages like not having to get permission for such things, so I said yes, not knowing anything about her mother. Just seemed like a good thing to do. And it was a good decision as it turned out. As I listened to her family and the other speakers sharing their memories of her incredible life, I was humbled and inspired by Dame Laurie’s story. In addition to being a life member of the National Council for Women, a past President and honorary member of the United Nations Association of New Zealand amongst many others she also raised six children who clearly adored her, as did her friends and colleagues from cabinet ministers to women in refuges.

What I found particularly uplifting was that Dame Laurie did not come across as a firebrand. She was passionately committed, but measured and articulate and convincing. She mentored many younger women and seemingly lived the change she wanted to see. Sounded like she really exemplified the ‘love trumps hate’ message that is so important in the current climate.

NYT’s Dina mentioned New Zealand in despatches — we apparently have the smallest gender gap in wages at 5.6%. Good to see, but not quite true. NZ’s Ministry for Women put this at 12% in 2016 and I don’t think it would have dropped that much in less than a year. However you calculate the number it’s still much worse in the States at 20%. But the fact that we have a gap at all is still an outrage!

For sure in NZ, we’re not the worst when it comes to gender equality. After all, we were the first country in 1893 where women got the vote — thank you Kate Shepherd and your indomitable peers, the ‘first wave’ feminists. We’ll be celebrating the 125th Anniversary of this ground-breaking event next year. Sounds good huh? But women still couldn’t stand for Parliament until 1919 and the first female Member of Parliament wasn’t actually elected until 1933, 40 years later. And, the number of female MPs didn’t reach double figures until the mid-1980s and we’re still under-represented in parliament. We’ve had a couple of female prime ministers — homage to Jenny Shipley (1997-1999) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) — for doing what Hilary Clinton couldn’t and breaking the ultimate glass ceiling here.

Unlike so many other places in the world where women are still little more than chattels, we enjoy the protection afforded through a strong statutory framework giving us full and equal rights and we have a small but effective Ministry for Women. New Zealand is an active participant in annual international meetings focused on the advancement of women and maintains a strong and consistent voice for women’s rights and advancement globally. Our Government is (allegedly) committed to ensuring all women have the opportunity to realise their strengths and achieve social and economic success.

Still sounds good? Keep reading …

  • The female unemployment rate is still higher than the male
  • As noted above, the pay gap remains
  • We do far more unpaid work than men — 63% to 35%.
  • We are still strongly at the mercy of the men in our lives:
    • 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime
    • 76 per cent of recorded assaults against females are committed by an offender that is identified as family.
    • In the four years from 2009 to 2012, 76% of intimate partner violence-related deaths were perpetrated by men, 24% women.

Clearly we still have a long way to go and we’re moving backwards not forward! The World Economic Forum ranks countries annually in its Global Gender Gap Index based on health, education, economic and political indicators. NZ has consistently ranked in the top 10, but recently we dropped to 13. We do some things well — in education for example 61% of tertiary graduates are women. But that’s cold comfort really when you graduate with an equal qualification to your male peers only to likely get paid less when you enter the workforce!

There are many reasons behind this, but topping the list according to people who should be in the know (that I know) appear to be that our current government (nearing the end of its second term) is not pro-active and we don’t have a national plan for moving towards gender equality, despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary. But there’s also the complacency thing that Dina was railing against and it’s apparent everywhere. All too often women are accepting the endemic, perhaps often subconscious (being generous) sexism that’s ‘always on’ when you cut to the chase. So many entrenched attitudes and subtle or not so subtle put downs remain despite all the progress.

There are compelling arguments for gender equality — and yes, it’s about more than just women’s rights. It’s about ALL people having the same opportunities. World Bank research shows a positive correlation between economies with greater equality and economic performance. Dow Jones has found successful venture-backed start-ups have more than double the median proportion of female executives than failed startups and it’s recognised that companies with gender-diverse boards make more money. Countries with the best gender equality have lower rates of violence against women. In New Zealand itself, it’s estimated that we could add 10% to our GDP annually if we maximised the working potential of all our women. A 2014 report estimated the cost of NZ’s family violence at $4.1 billion — we only have a total population of just over 4m, so that’s a staggering number per capita — and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Imagine what we could do with all that money otherwise!

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an individualist with a profound and deeply held belief that the playing field should be even for all. Throughout my (now quite long) career I’ve tilted hard at any glass ceiling in sight and supported other women in my orbit to do the same. I’ve been on the receiving end of significant and often highly depressing prejudice — so damaging to one’s sense of adequacy, acceptance and self-belief.

Many women have chosen to distance themselves from feminism because of the often unappealing stereotypes involved. But to me, feminism is not something any female can detach from. I’m with Maya Angelou, “I’m a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” Feminism doesn’t have to come with hairy legs and no lippie — that’s simply a choice. The non negotiable is that we cannot be complacent now or ever. After all, feminism is only the radical notion that women are human beings (Cheris Kramarae). In any case, who would go back to what we had even 40 years ago?

Dina Leygerman finished her article, ‘Open your eyes. Open them wide. Because I’m here to tell you, along with millions of other women that you are not equal. Our equality is an illusion. A feel-good sleight of hand. A trick of the mind. I’m sorry to tell you, but you are not equal. And neither are your daughters.”

As Hilary Clinton rightly said, “I believe the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” I echo that sentiment wholeheartedly… let’s stand on the shoulders of giants like Dame Laurie Salas and get the job done!

There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!

And no, I’m not talking about the world’s response to the Trump! The other day I was reminded rather poignantly of a joke that did the rounds when I was a kid in  Scotland.

A stentorian and very ‘no frills’ Minister of the Church of Scotland is haranguing his hapless flock,

“… and there will be weeping, and wailing and gnashing of teeth …”

(For the Scots or Scotophiles currently reading, for fullest impact, if you can, imagine the dialogue in a strong Teuchter accent.)

Anyway, just as our Reverend Brimstone is getting into fully cry, a tremulous hand goes up towards the back of the congregation.

“Well, Mrs. MacDonald, what is it?”

“Minister, I don’t have any teeth.”

“Mrs. MacDonald, where’s your faith?” he thunders, thumping the Bible emphatically.  “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

And my point? Teeth matter. Tenuous connection, I grant you, but  really they do. Not necessarily in St Luke/Matthew’s context that our Minister above was alluding to where the ability to gnash teeth is a key accompaniment to weeping and wailing as one is thrown out of heaven and cast into outer darkness. No, my hypothesis was a little less New Testament and more New Age. Not only are teeth pretty important in helping us chow down enough food to stay alive, they’re also kind of important in other ways; like the level of dazzle in our smiles. I’m thinking the sort of smile that Charming in Shrek managed to muster where the sunlight gleamed off his perfectly even, blindingly white set. Frankly, he wouldn’t be Charming without them. Toothsome even.

So let’s just accept that teeth matter. Or they do to me, so that’s really all that matters. Perhaps that’s because the dazzle quotient of mine is beginning to slide a little. I guess the expression ‘long in the tooth’ wasn’t coined for  no reason. OK, I know we can get the damn things capped and whitened and have access to all manner of other dental alchemy, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the little darlings have minds of their own and don’t always co-operate however much brushing, flossing, mouth washing, tongue scaling and similar we do. At least these days they don’t just whip ‘em all out the minute they start to show signs of wear and tear — many of us are likely to die with a fair number of our own pearly whites in place.

Given how important they are to us, I wouldn’t be unique in wondering what sadist designed them with so many built-in flaws that resulted in the dental profession. I swear it’s not just regression to childhood that makes vision a dentist so traumatic — it genuinely is not fun. Take my most  recent experience. You know the drill (LOL). A lot of poking around and scaling with scary-looking miniature instruments that the Auto da Fe would have been glad to have dreamt up. And it has to be said, the person who came up with that spray thing whose sole function seems to be to inflict eye-watering pain by blasting jets if ice-cold water at those very sensitive parts just reclaimed by the scaling cannot have been overflowing with the milk of human kindness, can they?

I was actually at the dentist about two weeks later than scheduled — a bad cold caused me to cancel my original appointment. My dentist was on holiday the following week so I was unable — and I was devastated about this — to get an another appointment any earlier.  That’s when the shit started to hit the fan. In the interim, my not very severe cold turned into sinusitis, which converted my right cheek into a manufacturing facility for brightly coloured nasal emissions that flowed like the Niagara Falls and in similar volumes. An excruciating pain then colonised the lower right hand side of my face. Happy though I was at the weight loss from not being able to eat anything substantial for several days, I’d have gladly traded the pain for several additional kilos.

As it was, the nasal emissions slowly dried up, but the jaw ache got steadily worse and the right hand side of my face was as swollen as a puffball before someone’s squished it. I popped Nurofen like Smarties, moaned a lot to anyone who would listen — a diminishing number as the days wore on — and generally grumped around like … well … er … yup … a bear with toothache. By the time of my appointment the pain was such that I couldn’t wait to get there – practically ran in the door and threw myself at the chair. And there I was. In the hot seat and up to my eyeballs in trouble.

Readers are advised that the following content contains subject matter that contains violence and bad language — discretion is advised.

“It’s going to have to come out! You know that don’t you? We can make a temporary repair, but that’s only postponing the inevitable.”

“FXXX!” I think, overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all.

Turns out I have an abscess. Given the symptoms, not much of a surprise. What was a surprise was that the remedy of choice was to remove the offending tooth. My eternally cheery dentist smilingly told me that antibiotics would clear up the abscess, but there was no alchemy that would save the tooth (or words to that effect). “Damn!” I say (thinking much stronger expletives), trying not to become hysterical. What kind of Hobson’s choice is this? Take the tooth out immediately and be done with it OR pay for a course of antibiotics AND THEN take it out anyway. Even for an abject wimp like me the choice isn’t a difficult one!

So, it’s agreed. The tooth must go. Out of consideration for the delicacy of my readers and my own disinclination to re-visit the trauma that followed, I will not provide a blow-by-blow account. I won’t mention the two enormous injections — “you’ll only feel a little sting”. Who do they think they’re kidding? The little sting was like I imagine you’d feel if you landed in the midst of a smack (the applicable collective noun I believe) of Box Jellyfish. I’ll also spare you the details of the routine check up that happened while the injections were turning my mouth to that slobbering insensitivity that can only be achieved by anesthetic. A cracked filling that needed a running repair was identified … “might as well do that too” … “er, um”, I mumble. Anyone else find it a practical impossibility to say “no” in such conditions? Why do they insist on asking you questions and not just accept that if they need to talk, it’s going to be a monologue?

Anyway, I can tell you reader, my cup ranneth over! The chipping away of tartar involved in the subsequent scale and polish seemed like a positive celebration of life in comparison to the knowledge of what was to come. Finally the dreaded moment of truth arrives. He starts poking around THAT tooth and I know it’s time.

“Let me know if you feel any pain.”

I close my eyes and assume the white-knuckle position, mind dredging up Hogarthian scenes of Victorian medicinal brutality. I feel a strange sensation in my jaw. Is there really a crunch or do I imagine it? (On reflection, it could have been my knuckles popping.) Then it’s over. He pats my head like I’m his favourite puppy and tells me I’ve done very well. I feel ridiculously proud of myself at this, temporarily forgetting my ordeal as I bask in the warmth of his approval.

I leave the surgery with a wad of cotton wool in my face which gives me a passing resemblance to a hamster, sporting an unattractive rigor around my mouth courtesy of the anesthetic. My bank account is in a new stratosphere of red. I’m sniveling gently. I read the post procedural instructions and note to my huge dismay that I can’t even go home and drown my sorrows in a bucketful of medicinal wine. DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL is prominently displayed in letters large enough to be seen by even the partially sighted. “FXXX” I think to my self again … experiencing extremely negative feelings about whatever moron coined the expression “this too will pass”!

Happily it was a back tooth and I can still gnash away with the best of them, but there’ll certainly be weeping and wailing that would compete with the outcast from heaven if I have to lose any more. Toothless wasn’t something I wanted to be when I grew up!