by Catriona Mills


Posted 20 November 2008 in by Catriona

The storm is still going on as I write, but I thought there was no point living in Brisbane during the worst storms in twenty-five years if I don’t take some photographs of it and post them on my blog.

Solipsistic? Me?

There are also some photographs of the back end of the storm after it moved over us in this post.

The grevillea:

The palm tree, without lightning:

And the palm tree at the moment of a lightning strike:

Does Anyone Else Think That DOCS Needs To Know About The Woolcots?

Posted 20 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve never read Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians before, but I picked it off the shelf yesterday (where it had been reposing undisturbed since June 2005—obviously another Lifeline BookFest buy).

And it’s frankly rather disturbing.

If anything, I think Captain Woolcot and his new young wife Esther might benefit from the assistance of the Department of Child Services.

And this is only my opinion after reading the first fifty pages. Goodness knows what horrors lies in the remaining pages.

It’s not the fact that Turner starts the book by saying, “If you imagine you are going to read of model children, with perhaps a naughtily-inclined one to point a moral, you had better lay down the book immediately” (9).

There’s nothing particularly unusual about that: there was a spate of books in the later nineteenth century that positioned themselves against the sickeningly angelic protagonists of mainstream children’s literature, whether it is via the “all real children are a little naughty” approach that Turner adopts here (and Susan Coolidge, likewise, in What Katy Did (1872), some twenty years earlier than Turner’s work), or the slightly more complex ideological shifts behind such brave, straightforward, intelligent, and logical child protagonists as Carroll’s Alice or Baum’s Dorothy.

No, I can cope with naughty children. But the young Woolcots seem less “naughty” and more “borderline psychotic.”

Take young “Baby,” for instance.

Despite her name, Baby is not the baby; she is the youngest child of Captain Woolcot’s first wife. His second wife, twenty-year-old Esther, has a young child of her own, called “the General.” But Baby is always called “Baby,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that she resents the usurpation of her position by the General:

She had a weakness, however, for making the General cry, or she would have been almost a model child. Innumerable times he [sic] had been found pressing its poor little chest to make it “squeak,” and even pinching its tiny arms, or pulling its innocent nose, just for the strange pleasure of hearing the yells of despair it instantly set up. (13)

Yep, that’s not disturbing at all. Perhaps Baby is annoyed by her family’s apparent lack of interest in which gender she is.

(Mind, poor General is something of a whipping boy for the entire family: when the children are later punished for something I’ll address in detail below, the General, who has no idea what’s happening, “gave a series of delighted squeaks; and Judy in her wretchedness smacked him for his pains” (31). That’ll teach him to be delighted!)

Baby is also later found in the stable, apparently “washing” some pets:

There were two favourite kittens of his [her father’s], shivering, miserable, up to their necks in a lather of soapy water; and Flibberty-Gibbet, the beautiful little fox-terrier he had just bought for his wife, chained to a post, also wet, miserable, and woebegone, also undergoing the cleansing process, and being scrubbed and swilled till her very reason was tottering. (40)

Now, this is positioned as a baby’s attempt to “help,” but I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I’m a little suspicious. The frequent physical attacks on the actual baby, and the targeting of her father’s favourite cats and the stepmother’s new dog? Oh, yes: I think someone is a little jealous of anything that usurps her position in the house.

If I were you, other Woolcot children, I’d be keeping a close eye on Baby.

But, then, your father’s not going to do that, is he? Captain Woolcot is “very particular and rather irritable” (11), which is why he never socialises with his children at meal times.

He also enforces a sharp distinction in the type of food served to the children and to him and his wife: when the children feed on bread and butter and the adult Woolcots on roast chicken, the former rebel and troop down to the dining room to ask for chicken. While their father can’t refuse, since he has a guest present, he does later punish them by refusing to allow them to attend the pantomime.

No matter how often I read this passage, I can’t isolate why this behaviour warrants such a severe punishment.

But, then, Captain Woolcot, apparently, hates his children: “He did not understand children at all, and was always grumbling at the noise they made, and the money they cost” (17). He’s “rather proud” of his eldest son and sometimes takes his prettiest daughter out for a drive when she’s “prettily dressed” (17).

It’s not entirely surprising that he doesn’t care for his children: Captain Woolcot wants to live in the barracks in Sydney, but “every one in the officer’s quarters rose in revolt at the pranks of these graceless children,” so “in considerable bitterness of spirit” he moves to a real house (17).

Even then, he manages some form of revenge: he spends such enormous quantities of money on “three beautiful horses, one at the barracks and a hunter and a good hack at Misrule [his home]” (17-18) that his children “went about in shabby, out-at-elbow clothes, and much-worn boots” and, barring the eldest boy, were taught “by a very third-class daily governess” (18).

This isn’t the charming, genteel poverty of, say, the Marches or the Peppers. This is something else entirely: poverty enforced from a position of authority against only some of the household, punative poverty in response to perceived misdeeds and, in essence, to punish the children for even existing, for taking from Captain Woolcot his sporting, carefree, bachelor existence in the barracks.

I don’t think it’s only the children who are problematic in the Woolcot household.

And what of young Esther, the stepmother? She doesn’t suffer from the caprices of her husband: she eats roast chicken, rather than bread and butter, and, rather than rags and patches, wears “yellow silk” (26) or “a trailing morning wrapper of white muslin with cherry ribbons” (27). But although, in this sharply divided household, she is aligned with the powerful faction, she too needs some assistance:

It’s not simply that she treats the General “more as if it were a very entertaining kitten than a real live baby” (12). (That poor damn child!)

It’s not even that she can casually say of her infant son, “Nell, take the scissors from the General, he’ll poke his eyes out, bless him” or fail to notice that “the General, mulcted of the scissors, was licking his own muddy shoe all over with his dear little red tongue” (46).

Not, it’s that she’s not coping, at all:

The young stepmother leaned back in her chair and looked round her tragically. . . .

A sob rose in her throat, two tears welled up in her eyes and fell down her smooth, lovely cheeks.

“Seven of you, and I’m only twenty!” she said pitifully. “Oh! it’s too bad—oh dear! it is too bad.” (46)

Seriously, someone call DOCS, before Baby sets fire to the house, Captain Woolcot finally snaps, or Esther does something she’ll regret.

(All quotes from Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. 1894. London: Ward, Lock, 1949.)

At Last, A Meeting Of My Two Interests

Posted 19 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by two interests, I mean Doctor Who and archival research.

The BBC, it seems, is opening its Doctor Who archives and making them available on the web.

Nick, it need not be said, is neither to hold nor bind after discovering this.

The archive begins, chronologically, with an exploratory document outlining the practicality of developing a science-fiction programme for television—and the document is awesome: at one point, it suggests that “More pretentiously, far less ably, the novels of CS Lewis likewise use the apparatus of SF in the service of metaphysical ideas” (see here for that document, written in 1962).

I guess nobody in the BBC was a big fan of Lewis’s work?

That document also outlines the fact that science fiction is overwhelmingly an American genre, which I find fascinating: no-one would argue, now, that there’s a distinctly British flavour of sci-fi, but this document largely predates that time.

And the archive ends with the announcement of the new series in Radio Times.

Surely no more incentive is needed to go and rummage through this? Everyone loves archives, yes?

Well, how about this audience report on “An Unearthly Child,” the pilot episode? According to page two, “The acting throughout was considered satisfactory.”

Or this concept report from 1963, which talks about the “unsexual” nature of science fiction and emphasises the need to avoid the generic tendency against in-depth character development.

Or the image gallery, including this image of William Hartnell from the pilot episode. (What a silly hat!)

Or . . .

I’m talking to myself here, aren’t I? You all disappeared at the first link and are now happily rummaging through the archives, aren’t you?

Thought so.

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Two

Posted 19 November 2008 in by Catriona

Continuing yesterday’s theme of issues that have puzzled me in Agatha Christie novels:

3. Did Mrs Varley poison her first husband? (Dumb Witness, 1937)

The redoubtable Emily Arundell dominates Dumb Witness, in part because of a narrative structure that, as far as I recall, Christie does not use in any other novel: though Miss Arundell’s death is the subject of the first sentence, the novel then flashes back to a fortnight before her death, and the victim is allowed to live again for the first four chapters.

We learn a little about Emily’s life in the novel: one of five children, four of them girls; the daughter of an irascible general who played his part in suppressing the Indian Mutiny and never ceased to talk about it, who drank brandy secretly, so that his daughters had to sneak the bottles out of the house in the dead of night and bury them, who was the archetypal domestic tyrant of late Victorian melodrama; the last surviving member of her family, despite being the “delicate one.” When she dies in 1936 (according to the epitaph in the novel), she is well over seventy: born, then, in the mid-Victorian era, she had a mid-Victorian life.

But Emily Arundell is not really the subject of this puzzle: that is about her only brother, Thomas.

We learn less about Thomas than we do about Emily, but what we do learn is intriguing. Thomas stays at home, being coddled and rather bullied by his sisters and certainly bullied by his father. He is meek and quiet, not an adventurous type.

And then he falls in love with Mrs Varley, on trial for murdering her first husband, cuts all the available clippings and photographs from the newspapers, and, when she is acquitted, tracks her down in London, proposes successfully, moves to the Channel Islands after a breach with his father, fathers two children, and outlives his wife by three years.

It’s tempting to say that this is not such a mid-Victorian life, but it’s certainly the stuff of which melodrama is made and perhaps nothing is quite so Victorian as a poisoning cause célèbre.

But did Mrs Varley murder her first husband? Some of the novel’s characters don’t care: they point out that she certainly didn’t poison her second husband, and that that’s the main thing.

But the plot does turn, in part, on a certain moral weakness in her offspring: son Charles is thoroughly without a conscience, and his sister Theresa is nearly as selfish and cold-blooded.

Theresa’s fiancé, Dr Donaldson, certainly seems to believe her mother was a murderess: he refers to Theresa as having not only an unfortunate upbringing, but also a bad heredity. Surely having a mother who was the unfortunate victim of circumstance (which is one way of reading her experience if she were innocent) does not make for bad heredity?

Then again, the fastidious Dr Donaldson may not be talking about her mother’s family. The bad heredity and the moral weakness could come from the father’s side: from roaring, drinking, boasting General Arundell.

That would be a subversive reading, since—secret brandy drinker though he was—General Arundell belongs to that class of good, upright “service people” who are so ostentatiously the backbone of the type of society with which Christie deals.

So perhaps it’s more plausible to suggest that Thomas Arundell might have had a closer shave than he realised.

(As a corollary to this puzzle, I’ve been wondering recently about the similarities between the back story of the Arundell family and the circumstances of the Bronte family: the houseful of women, the absence of a mother, the slightly odd father, the brother who breaks out in an unexpected way. I’m convinced this is entirely coincidental, but it does intrigue me, since Christie has a tendency to draw heavily on the late-Victorian lifestyle into which she was born and that her mother and—to a greater extent—grandmother perpetuated. A Bronte connection seems not outside the realms of possibility.)

Soggy Wildlife

Posted 18 November 2008 in by Catriona

After being completely invisible during the rain of the last few days, the bigger water dragon appeared first thing this morning to try and absorb as much heat as possible from the soaking-wet barbeque:

He couldn’t have flattened himself out any further, however hard he tried.

He was also either unusually pleased with himself or absolutely desperate for warmth, because he let me get closer than he usually does:

He’s a lovely boy, despite that vague look of contempt in his eyes.

To counterbalance that, here’s a photograph of the world’s most lugubrious noisy mynahs (if anyone reading this doesn’t have a garden full of these birds, that name is not a misnomer. Damn birds won’t shut up at the moment.)

They’re huddling together in yesterday’s rain. It would be hilarious if they didn’t look so miserable:

Well, no—it’s actually pretty hilarious, anyway.

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part One

Posted 18 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by puzzles, I mean unanswered questions—the sort of questions that would help fuel a Jasper Fforde novel set in the 1920s, or would provide fuel for John Sutherland if he abandoned the Victorian puzzles for Edwardian ones.

I’ve been re-reading a couple of neglected Agatha Christies while I’ve been marking, ones that I rarely re-read but which intrigue me slightly. And, for some reason, my brain’s been punctuating the reading with a series of “But whys?”

(Actually, that’s probably because, since all the courses I teach focus heavily on sentence-level writing, I spend the semester saying, “But why? Yes, you’re quite right: that does need a comma. But why?” I’m clearly not out of teaching mode quite yet.)

I meant to write this up as a single post, but the more I jotted down, the more I remembered. This, then, is the beginning of a short series of puzzles in Agatha Christie.

So here they are, in no particular order. I don’t have any answers to these, but I’m hoping someone, somewhere does, if the questions aren’t unanswerable.

Be warned: I’m not sure I can go into all these puzzles without spoilers, if anything said about an Agatha Christie novel can really be said to be a spoiler: I think even her last novels are my age.

1. Who does Lucy Eyelesbarrow marry? (4.50 From Paddington, 1957)

Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the one-off sleuth, working in conjunction with Miss Marple, in 4.50 From Paddington. With a degree in mathematics from an ancient seat of learning, she’s making her living as a “domestician,” exploiting the simultaneous shortage of domestic servants and the excess of people who grew up expecting there to be domestic servants, and she makes a fortune doing so.

Miss Marple makes her acquaintance prior to the book when Lucy is hired by Raymond West to care for his aunt as she recuperates from pneumonia: in this novel, she hires Lucy to locate a dead body.

Lucy is a fascinating character: a thoroughly modern counterpart to Miss Marple.

She’s also likely to marry one of the characters in the novel, but we never find out who she chooses. The house in which she works contains three people who either explicitly propose to her or seem likely to: the elderly Luther Crackenthorpe; his second son, the painter Cedric Crackenthorpe; and Luther’s son-in-law (husband to his dead daughter, Edith), the former fighter pilot Brian Eastley.

(Alfred Crackenthorpe, who also proposes to Lucy, is no longer in the running by the end of the book.)

Luther seems an unlikely choice but, Christie makes clear, Lucy is strongly attracted to both Cedric and Brian. The situation is not resolved in the book but, in the final section, Dermot Craddock—the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the case (as well as two others involving Miss Marple)—wonders aloud whom Lucy will marry: Miss Marple asks, “Don’t you know?” and twinkles at him.

Well, I don’t know. And I’d like to: I’m the sort of person who likes text at the end of a movie, telling me that everyone lived happily ever after.

And is Dermot himself in the running? Certainly, the recent BBC adaptation showed him as the successful suitor. There are, perhaps, hints in retrospect that he was attracted to Lucy, though I’m not certain I read their interactions in that fashion prior to seeing the adaptation. And Miss Marple’s final comment is rather pointed, though the fact that Craddock asks in the first place suggests he isn’t one of the hopeful men.

I’d be quite happy to conclude that Lucy married Dermot Craddock, though; I was always sorry not to see her again in later books and at least this way she’d be floating around invisibly in the back story.

2. How old is Lady Ravenscroft? (Elephants Can Remember, 1972)

In Elephants Can Remember, Poirot, with the assistance of Ariadne Oliver, investigates a crime some twelve or fifteen years old: the apparent double suicide of Sir Alistair and Lady Ravenscroft, the latter an old friend of Mrs Oliver’s from their schooldays.

In an early account of the crime, we’re told that Sir Alistair was approaching sixty at the time of his death and Lady Ravenscroft (Molly) was thirty-five.

When I first read that, I assumed it was simply an error, that the couple had been closer in age. Yet Molly’s age in reiterated later in the book as being thirty-five or, perhaps, closer to thirty-six.

The more it’s reiterated, though, the less plausible it sounds to me.

Certainly, there’s nothing implausible about an age difference of some twenty-five years. But it doesn’t seem to fit with the character of the relationship, which is described as mellowed, calm, sedate—an old, established marriage.

True, the Ravenscrofts have been married some years: they have a school-age son and a slightly older daughter who, since she is twenty-six when the suicide is being investigated, would have been about thirteen when it occurred. That certainly fits with Molly’s age, though the marriage is described as though it were one of some forty years’ duration, not fifteen.

But then there’s Molly herself. We’re told she’s rather vain and spends an enormous amount of her private income on clothes.

Fair enough. Vanity is not limited to relative youth.

We’re simultaneously told, however, that she wears a wig with gray streaks.

(Minor spoiler: the wig is, it is revealed, actually worn by another woman. But, since it is worn with a view to making a woman Molly’s age look much more like Molly, I think my coming point is valid.)

A wig streaked with gray does not, to me, sound like something a rather vain thirty-five-year-old woman would wear. It seems to belong to an older woman, a woman closer to her husband’s age.

From the information given, we’d have to accept Molly’s age as thirty-five. But it seems to me her marriage and her wig both belong to an older woman.

Frangipani In The Rain

Posted 18 November 2008 in by Catriona

Not everything about the rain is bad—in this suburb, at least.

Some Days, The Storm Gets You

Posted 17 November 2008 in by Catriona

I’m too tired to update properly.

We spent half the morning struggling to get out to The Gap in the aftermath of yesterday’s insane storm; Nick’s mother was stuck there in a damaged house with no electricity and no phone, since she doesn’t have second sight and didn’t know to charge her mobile phone up before the suburb was stomped by what they’re calling the worst storm in twenty-five years.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

And we saw almost all of The Gap, since the suburb is essentially inaccessible once Waterworks Road is cut off—which it was, with both trees and downed powerlines. So we circled through the back streets first on one side of Waterworks Road and then on the other, until we finally found a way through.

We thought the storm was one of the most severe we’ve ever had, and all we got was heavy, heavy rain and some winds.

Apparently, the winds out at The Gap were 120-130 km per hour.

It looks, if you can visualise this, as though someone took a whippersnipper to the suburb.

Every road was littered with tree branches.

All the power was down until the next suburb. It’s still down now, more than twenty-four hours later.

Even the treeline on the hills was denuded—every piece of greenery for a seven-kilometre radius is circling down a storm drain somewhere. You can see houses that were invisible behind greenery yesterday: from my mother-in-law’s back verandah, you can see the nearby dam through the gaps where the trees used to be.

We saw trees with girths of one-and-a-half or two metres snapped off, or pulled from the ground by the roots.

We saw bits of corrugated-iron roofing twisted and wrapped around tree trunks, metal playground equipment lying in pieces, fences smashed into kindling.

I’ve never seen anything like it, not even when I was caught in the 2000 storm in Sydney, the damage from which took nine months to fully repair.

In a way, I’m glad not to have taken my camera out—it would have felt exploitative.

But I’m ever more glad I wasn’t there for the storm, that my mother-in-law’s house wasn’t more badly damaged, and that I don’t need to drive in those conditions again.

Strange Conversations: Part Sixty-Four

Posted 16 November 2008 in by Catriona

The strange conversation we held just before this afternoon’s massive storm hit.

NICK: The sky was all sorts of weird colours when I was walking home from the shops: green, French gray, blue. I thought I was tripping for a while, there.
ME: You probably were: I’ve been putting LSD in your food for a while now.
NICK: That explains so much about my life.

Things I Have Just Found Under My Desk

Posted 14 November 2008 in by Catriona

We have a house inspection coming up, and I’m determined that the study will be spotless for this one: the rest of the house usually is, but the study is often dusty and cluttered, since it’s the smallest room in the house and crammed full of papers and books.

And when house inspections come up right when I’m due to submit my Ph.D., or in the first week of teaching for the semester, or when I have a pile of marking towering over me, then I never have the chance to do the cleaning as thoroughly as I’d like.

But this time there’s no excuse: plus, my parents will be visiting in a fortnight, so if I give the house a thorough cleaning now, they’re less likely to run their fingers over the furniture when they arrive.

One of the spots I’ve always ignored was a pile of papers resting on an archive box (also, oddly, full of papers) sitting under my desk. It was a neat pile, but dusty and, as it turns out, full of unnecessary rubbish.

So I thought I’d clear all that out this afternoon. And, in addition to an enormous pile of papers from four or five years ago that were completely unnecessary, I found the following rather more unusual items:

1. An unopened pack of eight, bright-yellow, microwave-safe, extra-strong plastic plates. I have no idea what they were doing there. Seriously—no idea. Or how long they’d been there.

2. Two pictures of my brother: one from the newspaper back when he was still working as a chef and one from when he was a toddler, with the world’s most adorable cat sleeping on him.

The latter is such a gorgeous picture that I almost added to this post, but felt that if he ever reads the blog, he’d probably kill me.

3. The instructions for operating my stove-top kettle. That kettle is brilliant: it’s burnt orange and makes a grotesque screaming noise when it’s boiling. But we became frustrated with it—it took three times longer to boil than the electric kettle—and I think it’s now in the back of a cupboard somewhere. But the instructions are under my desk, for reasons unknown.

4. A name-tag from when I was still the Words editor for M/C Reviews—that was a while ago. I assume this was from a function at some point: I don’t recall just making up my own name-tag and wearing it around the house.

It’s possible, I suppose.

5. A picture of a sea otter cut out of the newspaper. Self-explanatory, really: who doesn’t adore sea otters?

6. Two photographs of my mother. She used to send us those wallet-sized pictures when she was still teaching and had annual photographs taken with her classes. I have no idea why they’re under my desk (though there’s at least one, and possibly two, more stuck to my fridge).

Still, at least she and my brother are equal.

7. Two Ginger Meggs cartoons to do with language—including one on gerunds that I should probably start using in lectures. If only they hadn’t gone that unpleasant yellowy colour that old newspapers always go . . .

8. Two (what is it with the pairs of things?) Lord of the Rings character cards that probably came out of chip packets. I can understand why I kept Aragorn, but I’m less certain why I kept Merry.

9. A print-out of the Geek Hierarchy, which—frighteningly—is starting to look less like a joke and more like a map of my life.

10. A receipt for the online purchase of a book called Their Chastity Was Not Too Rigid, which sounds like Victorian porn, but it actually a book about leisure activities in early colonial New South Wales.

No, honestly. It is.

I'm Just Going To Keep Posting These

Posted 13 November 2008 in by Catriona

Because I can, really. And because they’re pretty. And because I haven’t quite shaken off my marking exhaustion, and am feeling lazy.

But I do think that this is a nice counterpart to the twilight moon photograph from two days ago.

Still, it makes a change from endless photographs of the frangipani, doesn’t it?

Huh. Wrong Again.

Posted 13 November 2008 in by Catriona

It turns out my camera can take reasonably decent photographs just of the moon, without any intervening foliage, if I concentrate.

Who would have thought it?

Not that this should form a distraction from the fascinating discussion about The West Wing going on two posts below this.

More Night Photography

Posted 12 November 2008 in by Catriona

Since I took the last moon photo, I’ve become obsessed with the likelihood of taking moon photographs later at night.

The problem with that idea is two-fold.

To take decent photographs of the moon, I need to either adjust the ISO setting and exposure time myself (which I’m not a sufficiently accomplished photographer to do on the run) or have the camera on a setting where it adjusts them itself (rather than on a fully automatic setting). If I just try to use a fully automatic setting, the camera will insist on using the flash, to compensate for the poor lighting. And using the flash ruins the ambient lighting.

But allowing the camera to adjust its own ISO settings and exposure to compensate for low-light shooting also means that the shutter has to be open for longer. Plus, the moon itself is too far away for my camera to focus comfortably on it. So I need to have the moon near something else, so that the camera can focus on what’s in the foreground while still taking a relatively crisp photograph of the moon.

That’s where I was lucky last time, since the grevillea was nearby and the moon had risen early: it wasn’t full dark when I took the last moon photos.

And that’s why I couldn’t resist trying to take these photographs when the moon moved over the palm tree in our back garden late tonight (about three hours later than the last photos were taken):

The clouds create an interesting effect, too:

Why I'm Shouting At The Television During The West Wing

Posted 12 November 2008 in by Catriona

The West Wing was always more Nick’s more cup of tea than mine—I have enjoyed it, but I rarely sought it out of my own volition.

But once we bought it on DVD—well, the first season, anyway—I both enjoyed it more and became intensely frustrated.

Oh, the frustration works on many levels. The writing is clever; the episode-level plotting is often brilliant. But there’s a strong sentimental streak, at times, and sentimentalism frequently frustrates me.

(Take the episode where C. J. falls in love with a Secret Service agent. Yes, he was charming. Yes, we all cried. But what kind of Secret Service agent doesn’t entirely clear a room when he’s aware of at least one person with a gun in the vicinity? But that’s beside the point.)

But you know what really drives me nuts about this programme? (Apart from the fact that this blog post is almost a decade too late?)

The gender politics.

It’s the gender politics that result in my shouting at the television during season one of The West Wing.

You know, I don’t need the President of the United States to be a woman to feel that our fifty percent of the world’s population is legitimately represented. I don’t. (On the same note, I have no stake in the debate as to whether the next actor to play the Doctor in Doctor Who should be a woman.)

No, my concern is largely with how the female characters on the show are presented.

(And I am excluding, except in the very broadest terms, Mrs Landingham—just because I love her.)

We were watching the second episode of season one, tonight—the one where the President’s doctor flies off to Jordan two weeks after his first child is born, and I think we all knew from the start where that was going: see my note about about sentimentality.

But halfway through the episode, I said to Nick, “This is the original Star Trek. It’s the original Star Trek, but in the White House.”

It’s not that the women aren’t President—that’s not what annoys me.

It’s that the women in the show are all—all of them, without exception that I can see—are in caretaker roles. They’re secretaries, by and large. Occasionally doctors, which I admit is a step up from nurses, as far as the gender politics of television are concerned.

I think this does shift, over the episodes. I seem to vaguely recall female generals—or someone in military uniform, anyway—in later debriefings.

But in the episodes I’ve been watching over the last few days, the women are all in caretaker roles.

And it’s not simply that.

Each one of these secretaries—to use that as a summary term—is also subject to the most egregious gender stereotypes.

They’re poor drivers. But then we all know that women don’t drive well.

They don’t understand sports. Women never understand sports. (And yet try getting Nick to wake up at 4 a.m. to watch Liverpool play A. C. Milan.)

They threaten to hit people with their shoes. Because women love shoes. And are incapable of rational debate. (Admittedly, my Aunt Dolly once hit her son-in-law with her high-heeled shoe. On the head. At his wedding. But there were mitigating circumstances. Allegedly.)

They’re easily distracted in the midst of work by photographs of babies.

Oh, is there any point continuing this list?

Yes, each of these points holds true for some woman at some point. I would imagine that they also hold true for a large number of men, as well.

But when the men are complex, distinct characters and the women are all semi-hysterical, easily distracted caregivers, then the distinction does rather jump out at you.

I don’t know if this pattern holds true in Aaron Sorkin’s other work—I don’t think I’ve ever consciously watched anything else he’s written (since his work is generally not in genres in which I am particularly interested).

But it is ensuring that there’s much shouting at the television in this house while we’re watching The West Wing.

Random Weirdness from Girls' Annuals

Posted 12 November 2008 in by Catriona

As with the last set of random weirdnesses (the plural works for me, and I’m keeping it), this series comes from a girls’ annual: this one is Our Darlings, from John F. Shaw and Co. There’s no publication date, but the inscription reads 22nd January 1933, and these types of books proliferated around Christmas time, so 1932 sounds plausible.

1932 is in keeping with the illustrations, too.

These vary between simplistic but relatively realistic black-and-white line drawings:

More stylised illustrations with a blocky and limited colour palette:

And the occasional, far more elaborate full-page, full-colour illustration:

Some of the stylised colour illustrations work well, especially when they strongly evoke an Art Nouveau aesthetic, rather than the “all children like sickeningly cute illustrations, right?” vibe of the skipping illustration above (and, of course, of thousands of children’s books published in this era).

This one, for example, has a lovely angularity and stunning colour palette:

Also? I covet that lamp shade.

Some of them, though, are just weird:

And can’t you tell, just based on this illustration, that that little girl would be thoroughly annoying?

(She’s singing, by the way. I know it looks as though she’s just sustained a sharp blow to the side of the head, but apparently she’s singing for the entertainment of her mother’s friends. While dressed as a pumpkin. See my point above.)

(At least, I assume she’s dressed as a pumpkin. It could just be a remarkably puffy, bright orange dress, I suppose. But did you look at her hands? Horrifying!)

Of course, some of the black-and-white illustrations are far more terrifying:

This is from a story called “The Fairy Shoe Dance.” But, honestly—I don’t see how that could possibly be a sufficient excuse.

(Those anthropomorphised shoe brushes? With their polishing? I think they’ll be haunting my nightmares tonight.)



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