The Sunday Times: Torture porn goes pop

Torture porn goes popLet me tell you a tale of two sex tapes. One is a seven-minute music video called Bitch Better Have My Money, starring Rihanna. It was released earlier this month and has been viewed more than 22m times. The other is, well, I’ll get to that in a minute. It is Rihanna’s that is the controversy du jour, so let’s concentrate on her first.

BBHMM, as the video is known, has a simple plot. The singer’s character decides to take revenge on the man who has embezzled her money. She enlists the help of three friends to kidnap his wife and hold her to ransom until he agrees to cough up the missing dough. But the no-good, lying, cheating husband prefers to let his wife rot in the hands of her captors while he lives happily off his ill-gotten gains. However, he has not reckoned on Rihanna, who succeeds in both exacting her personal revenge and getting her money back.

Anyone who was not born yesterday will recognise the premise of Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch, the 1986 black comedy Ruthless People and the 2013 crime caper Life of Crime, starring Jennifer Aniston. But BBHMM is no mindless rehash of an old favourite — Rihanna’s version takes the trope of the kidnapped-wife-in-the-boot to a whole new level of candied cruelty.

The wife in question is strictly fodder for the Occupy Wall Street crowd: thin, pretty, blonde and expensively clad. Every mincing step she takes is a signpost that says “she has it coming”. Having put the audience in the right frame of mind, Rihanna spends the next five minutes humiliating and torturing the woman.

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The New York Times Book Review: Joan of Arc: A History,’ by Helen Castor

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Engraving by J.C. Buttre, via Corbis

Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host — infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there’s nothing left but an empty husk. For the lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view), with the emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.

These women — and they’re almost always women — become the public’s playthings in perpetuity. Stripped of truth, deprived of personhood, they can be claimed and used by anyone for any purpose. Exhibit A is Joan of Arc, simultaneously canonized by Pope Benedict XV and the women’s suffrage movement; sometime mascot of 19th-century French republicans, 20th-century Vichy France and the 21st-century National Front. She has over a dozen operas and several dozen movies to her name. And she’s the single thread that unites a bewilderingly diverse crowd of playwrights, writers, philosophers, poets and novelists, from Shakespeare to Voltaire, Robert Southey, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West and Bertolt Brecht.

No wonder the British historian Helen Castor begins her highly satisfying biography of Joan of Arc by stating the obvious: “In the firmament of history,” the Maid of Orléans is a “massive star” whose “light shines brighter than that of any other figure of her time and place.” Indeed, Castor insists, Joan’s star still shines. But what a travesty if all people can see is the reflected vainglory of their own desires.

Castor’s corrective approach to the problem of Joan’s fame is to turn the mirror outward, changing the point of view from Joan herself to the times in which she lived. Follow her too closely, Castor argues, and “it can seem, unnervingly, as though Joan’s star might collapse into a black hole.” To those who think they know her story, this statement might seem unnerving. But Castor doesn’t mean the facts are wrong or need revising.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The First Ladies and Their Predecessors

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Photo: CSU ARCHIVES/EVERETT COLLECTION

Dolley Madison was born this month in 1768. One of the greatest first ladies in U.S. history, she had a style and energy that brought a uniquely American twist to the role of political spouse. She transformed the White House, not only giving the interiors a much-needed face-lift but also making the presidential residence the social epicenter of Washington, D.C. Among her many gifts to the nation was her insistence that George Washington’s portrait be rescued when the British burned the city in 1814.

But Dolley Madison’s greatest achievement was in creating the role of first lady. President Zachary Taylor used the term for the first time at her funeral in 1849. After her time in the White House, Americans expected first ladies to play a public part, one that was above day-to-day politics and often national in its scope.

The idea of the political spouse has deep historical roots. Livia Drusilla, the ruthless and powerful wife of Caesar Augustus, was instrumental in shaping the destiny of the Roman Empire. Yet even she was imitating a role model that had its original expression in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Battle to Include Women

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES)

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES)

Since its staid beginnings in 1971 as an annual management symposium at a Swiss ski resort, the World Economic Forum in Davos has grown into the premier talking shop for the global financial elite.

But Huntington’s Davos Man highlights another issue about the forum: It was (and is) overwhelmingly male. This year, some 19% of the 2,500 delegates were women, according to the forum—a number that has barely changed since a (widely ignored) quota system meant to involve more women was imposed by the event’s corporate sponsors in 2011. (Saadia Zahidi, who heads the forum’s gender-parity initiative, said that the gender ratio in Davos reflects “global leadership as a whole” and that the forum is working to increase women’s participation.)

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PORTER Magazine: Are we ready for the most powerful person in the world to be a woman?

Are we ready for the most powerful person in the world to be a woman?In 1974, the possibility that a woman could lead one of Britain’s political parties, let alone become Prime Minister, seemed so remote that bookmakers set the odds at 50-1. Since the woman in question was Margaret Thatcher, those brave enough to gamble a large wager walked away with a fortune.

Today, when there are 19 female world leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, the shock and awe provoked by Thatcher’s election victory seems almost quaint. Which makes it all the more surprising that the two countries with the world’s largest economies – America and China – have yet to follow suit. There have been more than 400 US cabinet secretaries since women won the vote in 1920, but only 27 have been female. As for China, no woman has ever been admitted to the ruling Politburo Standing Committee.

For America, at least, that anomaly could be about to change with the allbut-declared candidacy of Hillary Clinton for the White House race in 2016. The timing of her new book – a memoir of her years as the US Secretary of State – is surely no coincidence. For Clinton to secure the prize that eluded her in 2008, she must first persuade Americans that she is somehow different from the woman they rejected six yeas ago.

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The Sunday Times: Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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The Huffington Post: ‘Belle’: An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

By Regina Weinreich

The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England, she went far. The talented Amma Asante’s movie is an Austenesque comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and whose fortune is more plump than so and so’s social standing, but here’s the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed, but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position. Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain (Matthew Goode), Belle’s fate takes a turn when her father takes charge of her, and brings her to his family’s stately mansion. There, surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle’s education and upbringing. Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate. Belle’s father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and W Magazine’s Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

The Wall Street Journal: The Special Vilification of Female Leaders

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to be elected British prime minister. She wasn’t the first woman to be at the head of what had often been “Her Majesty’s Government,” of course, but only Thatcher had fought her way to parliamentary power via a general election. Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, she acknowledged the sexual and political revolution that had taken place. To her naysayers, Thatcher offered the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…where there is doubt, may we bring faith.”

During her 11 years in office, Thatcher repaid her Tory supporters’ faith, eradicating any last doubts that a woman could govern as well as a man. But her wish to bring harmony was in vain. Judging by the names she was called, Thatcher attracted a unique hatred among some Britons that was hard to separate from the fact she was a woman. After Thatcher’s death in 2013, a vociferous minority campaigned to propel the song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” to the top of the official U.K. singles chart. It stopped at No. 2.

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Smithsonian Magazine: The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

Photo: David Finch/DC Comics

I loved watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”

Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”

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The Sunday Times: It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…