‘This made me think of you’ – my lockdown playlist

By Anna Calder

With the news that Boris had announced a new national lockdown, one of the first thoughts I had, besides how boring it was going to be in Cambridge without the people, coffee shops, and art exhibitions, was that I needed a new playlist. So with that in mind, I took to Spotify to create the one and only ‘lockdown part II’. For the tagline of the playlist, I aptly put, ‘get sum headspace luv’. Despite the awful spelling in an attempt to be cool, it describes exactly what we all need to do: remember this isn’t going to last forever and that some beauty can be found in these extraordinary times. 

First, let’s start with the songs that friends sent me. People always talk about ‘those three little words’. Well, I’d prefer to hear those six words: ‘this song reminded me of you’. Honestly, there’s no sentence I’d rather hear – especially if the song’s a banger. With that in mind, the first song on my playlist is ‘Golden’ by shiv, sent to me by my best friend from home. shiv is a Zimbabwean-Irish musician based in Dublin, who really reminds me of Pip Millet and Frank Ocean. Her soothing lyrics and chilled out vibes are perfect to work to, relax to or just walk around and feel at peace to. The first line of ‘Golden’, “I just wanna get away, find a place to just escape”, is probably a perfect description of those who find themselves in an unlucky two-week quarantine. Why thank you, track and trace. 

shiv, ‘Golden’

The second song that deserves a shout out is ‘Unsatisfied Woman’ by Barbara Stant. I imagine many of those in Cambridge can relate to the title of the song, thanks to the no mixing of households rule. However, I can assure you that you will indeed be satisfied after listening, with the American artist’s soothing soulful tones and powerful female voice. 

This playlist is also a big debut for Olivia Dean, who I’d never heard of before lockdown. Her music could be described as a mix between Pip Millet (again!) and Freya Ridings, making her definitely one to watch out for. I like to think that some of her songs capture our lockdown moods. Whether you decide to take a more mellow approach with the song ‘Crosswords’, settling down with your nearest and dearest for some old-fashioned fun, or you’re in more of an ‘Ok Love You Bye’ mood, saying goodbye to those pre-lockdown flings. Oh, what could have been. My favourite lyric is by far, ‘four pints in and you’re someone else’, reminding me of previous zoom quizzes where I maybe got a bit carried away at the virtual pub. 

Finally, I can’t make a playlist without including some Spanish music. YEИDRY is a singer-songwriter who grew up between the Dominican Republic and Italy, who I first came across from watching her COLORS SHOW performance. But don’t worry, it’s not your classic reggaeton and ‘Despacito’; YEИDRY grew up with 90s pop RnB and tries to mix latin vibes with an electronic touch. She doesn’t yet have an album out, but if it’s anything like ‘Nena’, then it’s going to be heavenly. 

YEИDRY, ‘Nena’

Although I use my dad’s spotify, and he might be a bit confused if tons of students start following his playlists, feel free to go and have a listen and enjoy some soothing tunes. This compilation of all-female artists is a testament to the powerful presence of the women killing it in the music industry.

Queens’ LGBT Officer’s take on the Trans Flag incident

Content warning: this article mentions queerphobia, transphobia, Trans and Pride flags being removed, Coronavirus, mental health, gender and sexual identity and gender expression.

It is hugely disappointing that Queens’ have chosen to remove the Trans and Pride flags from students’ windows, and with it remove the opportunity for personal expression and visibility of students which it claims to protect. In this case, the flag ban seems sorely misjudged for two reasons. Firstly, the removals took place in the run up to Trans Awareness Week, which is a time to celebrate personal gender identity as well as commemorate the oppressed. Secondly, since coronavirus and the second lockdown, it’s been particularly hard to maintain a sense of belonging and cohesion in the queer community. Whilst flags may seem tokenistic to some, they do offer symbolic acceptance and pride – something which is undoubtedly needed in these isolating times. To choose a celebratory week in a national lockdown feels mindless at best and targeted at worst. What is particularly damning is that in previous years, political symbols such as EU flags have been hung in windows; and therefore any argument by college that suggests allowing flags is politically antagonistic are wholly redundant. Of course, the fact that our gender and sexual identity is politicised already sits at the crux of this issue. I therefore am personally endeavouring to amend the rules to allow the hanging of flags within our room windows, as long as they do not insight hate and/or violence. And of course, I offer my continued support to those LGBT+ students who need it.

Despite my disappointment with much of the college’s response, we should be wary of  jumping to the conclusion that they are attacking the LGBT+ community. Some may find this response surprising, but having been the one liaising with college, I feel like I perhaps understand the decision processes slightly better. The minute there were complaints, senior leadership contacted me and asked what they should do to resolve it. They expressed a willingness to fly the Trans flag from the bridge and have sent maintenance out to help me achieve this. We are now in discussions about clarifying the Student Rule Book, with college potentially being more lenient on flags within windows. To take the conversation beyond flags, Queens’ has recently consented to a Gender Expression Fund, and our first applications are rolling through. I also had members of the senior college team contacting me before term started to check incoming freshers’ pronouns to ensure no one would be misgendered in supervisions or by college staff. I’m not saying that these solutions are perfect, or negate the clear institutionalised queerphobia that is attached to most Cambridge colleges. However, I feel it necessary to highlight these progressions, because this is not necessarily the damning story people thought it might be.

As a final note, whilst Queens’ has rightly been brought to the forefront of this issue due to online debate – and it’s vital that we as Queens’ students hold our college accountable for their actions – I think it’s also important to reiterate that our story is not an anomaly. It is great to see Trans flags at Robinson, Newnham and Clare, but they are sparse around the rest of the city. Many other colleges also have bans on individual flag flying and from accounts of Pembroke for instance, the college responded to issues raised by the LGBT+ officer with thoroughly offensive comparisons between the Trans flag and people hanging their dirty washing out of windows. This is not pointing the finger of blame, nor an attempt to exonerate Queens’, but rather to highlight that these issues are university wide. Regardless of the collegiate system, we are one student body and should be attempting to progress trans rights in every realm of university life. Queens’ showed us an example of how not to deal with Trans issues sensitively and correctly, so let’s use it as an example to ensure other colleges do better. 

Robbie 

LGBT+ Officer, Queens’

(He/They)

Cambridge, we have a problem: rape culture, complicity and accountability

By Xenia Haslam

Content warning: This article features detailed discussions of the reporting process surrounding rape and sexual assault.

You might think that everyone who attended the GirlTalk X Bold Voices event last week on rape culture at university would have left the talk shocked and disturbed. Of the 1.8 million students who arrive at university every year, 62% will experience some form of sexual violence during their time at university, with many victims experiencing complex trauma and mental health issues in the aftermath of their assault(s). Reporting sexual assault or rape is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when the nature of these crimes and the societal narratives surrounding them cultivate doubt and self-blame in survivors. Yet, rather than making sure that supportive systems are in place for survivors if they wish to report, universities are consistently failing to provide accessible and easy-to-navigate reporting procedures, and – in the rare case that a report is taken seriously – the outcomes of such processes overwhelmingly seem to reflect a desire to protect universities’ reputations over the wellbeing of their students.

Unsurprisingly, when speaking to others at the event it was clear that this grim picture didn’t constitute anything unfamiliar; just earlier this year, Cambridge student Dani Bradford wrote about her experiences of the University’s deeply problematic handling of her sexual harassment case, emphasising how being subjected to institutional silencing ‘isn’t just damaging – it can be actively re-traumatising’. As a result of the secondary trauma inflicted on those who decide to report, a vicious cycle has been established whereby other victims are de-incentivised from coming forward, creating a culture in which sexual assault is actively tolerated. Despite being at a higher risk of sexual violence, those marginalised by multiple aspects of their identity are even more disadvantaged when attempting to navigate these processes, since such institutional gaslighting is both underpinned and compounded by structural misogyny, racism, classism and ableism.

As an institution, Cambridge is inarguably complicit in the normalisation of rape culture. The University’s collegiate system has prevented the adoption of a singular University-wide policy for the reporting and handling of sexual misconduct cases, creating confusion about whether survivors should attempt to report through their individual colleges or at a University level; not only has this exacerbated the existing barriers survivors face to reporting sexual assault, but this has also allowed some colleges to get away with treating sexual assault much less seriously than others, as witnessed in the case of Trinity Hall’s repeated failure to take seriously its students’ allegations against Dr Peter Hutchinson. Furthermore, the intimate supervision settings that are so unique to Cambridge heighten the already asymmetrical power dynamic between academics and students. With no formal training for supervisors regarding what constitutes inappropriate behaviour with students (let alone on how to respond to students who disclose experiences of sexual violence), this has led to students being put at unnecessary risk both of sexual assault itself, but also of their experiences being invalidated.

The inflated credibility academics are awarded as a result of their perceived intellectual superiority has fostered a culture of impunity at Cambridge; instead of those in positions of power being held accountable for their actions – including their failure to take action against perpetrating students – it is those who possess the least power that are being punished for attempting to call out their perpetrators. While events such as GirlTalk X Bold Voices provide a valuable and safe space to discuss these issues, they also highlight the urgent need for those who aren’t directly affected by these issues to hold themselves accountable for the ways in which they are complicit in upholding rape culture. At an institutional level this complicity can take the form of failing to prioritise the welfare of survivors, while at an interpersonal level it can encompass anything from failing to call out problematic behaviour amongst peers to minimising the experiences of and tone policing the victims of such crimes. 

Those in the privileged position of never having had to worry about sexual violence need to educate themselves on what it means to be a true ally – it isn’t the job of survivors to open themselves up to the possibility of having their experiences disbelieved just to try to change the views of those unwilling to accept that they play a role in perpetuating sexual violence.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, the following resources may be able to provide support:

Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser: specialist University support worker who can provide emotional and practical support

Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre: a charity for female victims of sexual violence

Cambridge Nightline: a confidential night-time listening service

Breaking the Silence: Cambridge University’s campaign against sexual harassment and misconduct

Photo: The Tab

On Time

By Isobel Maxwell

Time has a different meaning in Cambridge. I have a feeling it has always been this way. Even before the university was founded, I like to think that the fens were the sort of rip-van-winkle place that, ripe with miasma, would slow minutes to years and speed years into the space of seconds. The result is that the eight to ten weeks that make up the term – the short time we are given here – pass simultaneously in moments and yet seem to take years to go by. Last year I stuffed so much into Michaelmas term that, back home and recounting ‘what I did in my first term’ over the Christmas dinner table my brother laughed and refused to believe me – and my mother looked worried and asked if I needed to take a break. Perhaps my actions were inadvisable, but Cambridge presented too tempting an opportunity not to take up; here was a place where the day runs on hyperdrive, and here I am to race along with it. I come from a tiny town in the middle of nowhere; nothing ever happens. I often joke that people go there to die. Sometimes I feel dead, being there; or if not dead, then caught in that same hovering place that dead people seem to exist in when you remember them, frozen in the activity of memory. Moving slowly, as if in honey. Days there are slow, weeks are slow, years are slow. Being in Cambridge, I could swear my heart beats faster. If I were to live here I think I would probably die young of a worn out ventricle. Perhaps I’d learn to ignore the pace and find my own. Perhaps I’d find a happy place in the middle and learn to cope; but I don’t make the mistake of optimism often.

Before, I couldn’t help feeling guilty in Cambridge. Like the buildings, guilt seemed a part of the city. Guilt over time: lost time, wasted time, stolen time. I felt guilty for time spent sitting in rooms drinking tea and talking, time that I was aware was chipped from the edges of lunchtimes and between supervisions and lectures and essays and the library. I felt guilty for time wasted not drinking tea and talking, usually whilst sitting in supervisions or lectures or essays or in the library. I used to sit there, in our historic library, simmering in the light of the stained glass and the steady wash of guilt that enveloped and subsumed any concentration and good intentions I might possibly have arrived with. Balance is not something I felt able to maintain here, and yet – sometime during Lent – I came to cherish that chaos. If Cambridge refused to keep to normal pace, normal time, I didn’t need to learn balance. I would outrun the clock. I was racing.

But here we are. If I was naïve enough to believe that Cambridge was a force of nature, I’ve been proved wrong. It wasn’t unchangeable. Time has frozen, paused, blurred, become soupy and strange. There are new rules. I am no longer on hyperdrive but am hovering in the way I used to in Gloucestershire. Things are moving in a different way, have flipped. There are less opportunities now, to sit and talk; everyone rushes around, literally wearing masks covering their face up to their eyes in the sense that now is not a time to stand around and talk. It isn’t safe, it isn’t sensible, it isn’t the right thing to be doing. And yet I find myself slipping between hours spent in my room, unsure of what I was doing. Where did the minutes go? Can I get them back? Where did I put them? How did I use them? I’m beginning to feel hard done by, as though my life is being stolen from me. Perhaps I am making up for all the time I stole last year. 

And yet, I can’t fairly pretend that things are catastrophic. There are still moments that remind me of the point of it all. I have begun sleeping in the bed of a boy who I am in love with. We stay up past our bedtime and watch The Office when we should be watching lectures or reading books. In the snatches between layers of sleep I wake and I see his face, lit by the lamps that stay on all night, though there are no clubbing kids to guide home. Or I water my plants on my windowsill, notice new pale circles on the leaves or outcroppings. I take clandestine trips to Sainsbury’s and think about Ginsberg and O’Hara and oranges. I catch the breeze over the river. 

It is moments like this when Cambridge works its magic and I feel the clock flicker; a moment like that lasts the whole day. Perhaps there were always moments like that to be found, but I was so busy I never had a chance to notice them. I am, now. Even if nothing else, I am noticing the moments, and the new movement of time.

How to side hustle

by Kristina Harris

Look, you’re having a crisis. Who the hell isn’t? So, be honest: why are you working? Why do you do what you do everyday? You complain about it a lot. And you aren’t even too sure if you’re good at it. We don’t need to mention the pandemic, but, for argument’s sake, working from home has given us all too much time to think. All you know is that you don’t like it. But what’s next? 

You might be selling cupcakes on the side and that’s been bringing in extra money. Or perhaps you are a kick ass babysitter, and enjoying the tax free revenue it brings. But what you really love to do is knit. And you have found a way to make some money from that. 

So, you have a side hustle. (I get knitting might not be yours, but for the sake of this argument we are going to pretend that it is.) You love to knit sweaters for bunnies, and the market you’ve seen thus far is poppin’. But let’s say you take this hobby to the next level. You want to move it from a ‘when you have time’ activity, to a full on, money making, life thrilling, side hustle. But you have this massive wet blanket that’s keeping you down, and that’s your full-time job. You know – the place you show up to every day, where you stay way longer than 9-5 that helps pay your bills but doesn’t at all cover your lavish spending on your treat-yo-self items. You know – the thing that you “use your college degree” for? 

The point is, you can’t quit your real job, because of food, and rent, and other boring stuff. But you can’t give up your side hustle, because of your mental stability, your natural ability to knit, and overall happiness.

So, you’re stuck? Well, join the masses. If you’re anything like the youngsters I know, you are not alone. You just need to break it down. First, you need time management skills. Not necessarily a plan – but a plan would be excellent if that’s your thing. You need to set deadlines, the same way your real job does. If you want it to be real, you need to treat it like it’s real. In your dreams, you are the only one there. So, you need to hold yourself accountable. If your boss asked you to get them that spreadsheet by EOD you bet your bottom dollar you would find a way to get it in their inbox before you left. So, why not put the same urgency into what you love? Get a planner.

Make a plan! Put starts, set deadlines. Make a schedule. Decide what you need to prioritize and do it. Just by writing it down, you now have a better chance of achieving your goal. Will it magically just happen because you wrote it down? I doubt it. Highly. But why not help your odds. 

Okay, so now you’ve made goals. But they are going to be all kinds of overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Next, do some research. If you want to be the next big thing in beatboxing, you need to know what you are getting into. You need to find out which rings you should be in. You need to learn the fundamentals. Just because you love it, doesn’t mean you know a thing about it. And don’t just research beatboxing –  you need to know how to sell yourself, find your niche, and get going. 

So here are three starter books that will help you start your side hustle. Each brings something new to the table. Maybe you need a new plane book, or maybe something to spice up your coffee table. Either way, books are such great resources, and just reading them will help you feel better about yourself. Plus, they are workplace approved, and might even help you with your 9-5. 

1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a perfect coming-of-age story about a young boy on his personal quest. There are many times where the world tries to steer him off course, but he has to find his way in the world to do what he knows he is meant to do. 

2. Selling to Vito by Anthony Parinello. If you have a hobby, and you want to make it a business, you’re going to need to sell it. Knowing who to talk to is great, but never having the courage to speak to them means you’re going nowhere fast. This was the first book I read when I started in my sales role, and to this day it is one of the best career books I have read. It’s a quick read and you can find the PDF just by searching for it online.

3. Starting a Business for Dummies. You can buy a used copy for three pounds. So, you really don’t have an excuse. Knowing how to legitimize your ideas into a sound business plan is something you are going to need to know. 

Also, if you need cash to help fund your dreams, sites like Ebay and Depop will help jumpstart the funds. Sell that old bag, get rid of those old shoes. Get cash liquid! No, you won’t wear it again. No, you don’t need it. No, it won’t come back in style. If it does, you will have new funds to purchase one. 

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

I’m Speaking.

by Kristina Harris

A few weeks ago the US Vice Presidential debate took place in Utah. Not like the location matters an inch since it was all pretty much virtualized. But we all watched from screens around the world and experienced something we all know too well. An uninformed, less qualified person, explaining away nonsense over your rational, evidence based, response.

It was infuriating to watch live as this man thought his smug righteousness came off as anything close to charming. Content aside, women everywhere rolled their eyes in solidarity, knowing all too well the careful waltz Kamala Harris had danced for an hour: the tango of the angry woman, or the polite doormat. To be frank, both options are utterly useless.

Whether you are in a Zoom meeting, in a classroom, on a date, out with friends, women everywhere have been trying to unlearn the social etiquette that allows their points, opinions, objections, and concerns to be indiscriminately steamrolled.

About a month before Kamala Harris told the world she was speaking, I was out with some friends in Camden and the topic of mansplaining came up. The group mainly consisted of women, which is probably why my friend felt so comfortable to chat about how much she loathed this particular social injustice. One of my girlfriends was talking about how annoying it was, and the boy of the group feigned innocence while he mansplained mansplaining. He was clearly uncomfortable and proceeded to get wildly drunk. The girl stood her ground and said, ‘hey Tony, I just said I hate when people do that, why did you do that?’

‘I’m just joking Lizzie! Jesus, can you relax. I’m just joking.’

Well, if you can guess, Lizzie did anything but relax. But why was it on her to relax? Why is it always on her to relax? Tony, you made a poorly timed, poorly executed joke. AND it wasn’t funny or original. This is how it often plays out when someone expresses discomfort. Why is it when you voice what makes you uncomfortable, you have to spend the majority of your time comforting your offender?

‘No, of course you’re not like that.’

‘I didn’t mean you.’

‘I know you didn’t mean to be offensive.’

‘Sorry. No, you go ahead.’

‘I know you’re not a misogynist.’ Well, you know what Ted, I frankly do not know that about you. We just met. But I am saying this because  you’re now upset that you have offended me and somehow it is my responsibility to put you back together.

I know it’s no walk in the park to hear that you made a social blunder. It is exceptionally uncomfortable to meet your imperfections and look them in the eye. It is even more uncomfortable to try to change ingrained habits. But just because it is hard, uncomfortable, and different, doesn’t mean we don’t even try.

In fact, the things that are the hardest for us are the things we need to double our efforts on. For years, men have talked over women. The way of the world is that women speaking up  just isn’t as correct as their self-assured male counterparts. Just because that’s the way it has always been, doesn’t mean that is the way it always has to be. We used to have a bucket as a toilet, until someone said, no, that’s enough of that. This is gross, and there is a better way to do things. And I need to say here and now, this is substantially easier for me to say as a woman who has everything to gain by having safer spaces. I know this onus is on my male counterparts. And I won’t sit here and say it won’t be a challenge. I know it will be uncomfortable. But it is necessary. It is that simple. It is 2020. We aren’t s***ting in buckets, and we aren’t talking over women.

Photo by Alex Edelman/Shuttershock

Business as Utterly Unusual

by Kristina Harris

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve seen more ‘business as usual’ now than I have ever seen in the entirety of my short life. I was walking down the street the other day where substantial construction was taking place. There were metal fences framing the torn apart streets. The gravel was coming apart at the seams, and the fences twisted and turned in the most confusing urban labyrinth anyone has ever had to go through to get to Shake Shack. When I finally escaped the loud drilling of chaos, I was met with a yellow rectangular sign that read ‘business as usual’. At this moment, I stopped my pursuit of cheese fries and just looked at the sign. I turned around and looked at the calamity of construction I had just walked through and thought, they must be f**king kidding me? NOTHING was as usual on that pavement. Nothing is as usual!

Nothing is even close to normal. Usually, when I talk about something being six feet, I am describing an ideal boyfriend or the deep end of a pool, not the distance between me and a friend! And masks? Do not make me laugh. I have never worn this many masks – not even when I was re-enacting the most dramatic scenes of Grey’s Anatomy on wine night. Never in my life have I felt more like a secret agent than when I whip my mask off after having looked  around the corner and not seen anyone. We’re doing happy hours alone over spotty Wi-Fi connections, and videoconferencing dates. And class? I have no idea. I slept through most of April and May because surviving is freaking exhausting.

Regardless, by whatever stroke of luck we are back in Cambridge. We are socially distantly making friends, joining clubs, and meeting girlfriends. We are doing Zoom drinks, and even wearing mascara again. The Zoom life isn’t all bad. I don’t really miss walking home barefoot, heels in hand regretting that I didn’t just wear trainers. They are back in style in a big way anyway.

For some of us, we haven’t been back in Cambridge since March. For some of us, this is the first time ever in the city. To everyone running around unsure which arrow to follow, and which side of the pavement to be on, don’t worry about it. No one knows what is going on. But, welcome back! Seriously.

This welcome is even more all-encompassing than it has ever been in the past because we have all moved into an alternate virtual reality. And no, we didn’t fall into Jumanji. We just slipped into an entirely unpredictable present, and we all found ourselves here, in this lovely town together. Nothing is the way it was, or how I pictured it. Yet, we are still expected to power through. To keep the world turning. To keep learning. To keep working. For me, it hasn’t been easy to stay focused, to stay upbeat and positive. I don’t even want to talk about how staying fit is going. But that’s okay! I am doing my absolute best.  

Which is why I am even more appreciative of spaces like Girl Talk now more than ever. It may just be the smallest corner of the internet, but this small place is just for us to be unapologetically ourselves. For our voices to just take up space. To take up six feet of space for that matter!

So, welcome back, or just welcome! Come to the blog to hear from other lovely beings at Cam who are just trying to make sense of whatever the heck 2020 is. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. And try your very best to enjoy your life. No, things aren’t the way they were, nor are they the way you expected. But that isn’t nothing. Some of the best times, some of the best nights are when you didn’t even expect to go out. When you didn’t make any plans. It might seem incredulously optimistic, maybe even freaking ridiculous. But business isn’t as usual. So, don’t make your life usual. Make it utterly unusual.

Image: wet pavement by Adrian Eckersley

Vogue Portugal’s Latest Cover Reveals Fashion’s Problem with the Aestheticisation of the “Mad Woman”

By Sophie Coldicott

CN: Discussions of mental health

On the 2nd July, Vogue Portugal revealed its concept and four covers for its July/August issue. The issue was to be about “love”, “life”, “us”, “you”, and finally, “health”; specifically, “mental health”.

Supposedly encapsulating this slew of buzzwords was the first cover, depicting a beautiful, naked woman hunched in a bathtub whilst water was poured on her by two nurses – the implication being that she was a patient in a psychiatric hospital. The title of the issue was to be “The Madness Issue”.

Naturally, this was met with immediate backlash. The top liked comment on the Instagram post reads “these types of photos should not represent the mental health conversation!”, whilst another states “psychiatrized people are not a trend.” The consensus in the comments section, and across social media at large, was that the depiction was outdated and offensive.

Vogue’s imagery of the stigmatised ‘asylum’ has a long history in fashion, providing basis for historic shows such as Alexander McQueen Spring 2001. In the show, lauded by Vogue Runway as “nothing short of monumental”, bandaged models walk around a mirrored glass cube that resembles the wards of a psychiatric hospital, swatting at invisible flies and pushing against the glass separating them from the audience. More recently, Gucci opened its Spring/Summer 2020 show with models stood on a conveyor belt dressed in white, heavy, buckled clothing, obviously referential of straight jackets. These items were not part of the collection “Gucci Orgasmique” but used as a device for the ‘spectacle’ of the show. This produced the iconic image of model Ayesha Tan Jones protesting during the show by holding up their hands with the words “mental health is not fashion” written on them, having covertly biro-ed them on in the bathroom before walking – a moment unsurprisingly scrubbed from the official show recording.   

Ayesha Tan Jones protesting at the Gucci Spring 2020 Show.

Fashion’s troubled relationship with mental health is also a gendered one. French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization argues that ‘madness’ is not an abstract concept, but a construction informed by the society it is produced by.  Thus, ‘madness’ is an explicitly gendered concept; in Women and Madness, Phyllis Chesler writes that “what we consider ‘madness’… is either the acting out of the devalued female role or the total or partial rejection of one’s sex role stereotype.” What is medicalised as ‘madness’ is inextricably bound to patriarchy, and is weaponised as a mechanism of patriarchal control. This is a key idea of feminist thought, appearing across a variety of works from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria (1797) to Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s classic The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). Historically, women have been more likely to be deemed ‘mad’ and institutionalised as a consequence, a fact naturalised by patriarchal medicine that located women’s imagined predisposition to ‘madness’ in their biology.

18th century charges of sensibility, defined by Samuel Johnson in 1755 as a “quickness of sensation; quickness of perception” and a “delicacy” expressed in a hyper-sensitivity and emotionality, were made most frequently against women. Whilst both men and women were accused of sensibility, women were thought to have a more natural receptivity to sensibility due to their nervous systems that had a greater sensory perception and thus greater capacity to “feel”. As John Perkin’s 1790 domestic instruction novel wrote, the “peculiar ordering of [women’s] frames” made them distinctly more prone to sensibility. This upheld the Enlightenment model of sexual duality that denied women’s reason and rationality. Wollstonecraft, a contemporary critic of sensibility, summed up this belief that “man was made to reason, woman to feel: and that together, flesh and spirit, they make the most perfect whole”.

The 19th century diagnosis of hysteria was the successor to sensibility in providing medical basis for patriarchal control of women. Hysteria, coming from the Greek word Hystera, meaning womb, was an all encompassing diagnosis for women that exhibited symptoms such as shortness of breath, anxiety, sexual forwardness, hallucinations, and spasms, believed initially in the 16th and 17th century to be caused by a wandering womb, and later, by a hereditary neurological fault. Hysteria was considered grounds for institutionalisation.

The leading authority on hysteria in the 19th century was Jean-Martin Charcot, a French psychiatrist based in the Parisian Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. At the height of the Salpêtrière in 1873, 3,633 women and 103 children were interred there, a population made up of paupers, vagabonds, “decrepit women”, old maids, epileptics, “women in second chidhood”, “misshapen and malformed innocents” and incurable “madwomen”. The overall cure rate in 1863 was just 9.72%.

Famously, Charcot would put on displays of his ‘hysterical’ patients who would perform their ‘madness’ in public lectures every Tuesday. Patients would be hypnotised and made to hysterically fit on command. One ‘act’ known as the “mariage-a-trois” would have the patient hypnotised to believe that each half of her body had a separate husband. The men could fondle their respective half of the patient’s body freely, but would receive a slap should they go past the boundary. Charcot, like Vogue Portugal, also attempted to image the ‘mad woman’ in order to discover a universal set of symptoms for hysteria. Many of these images also feature the patients in a state of partial undress, following artistic conventions that depicted the ‘mad woman’ in ecstasy with an exposed or near exposed breast.

Some of Charcot’s images of a ‘hysterical’ woman. The far right image is titled “Ecstasy”.

In aestheticizing the ‘mad woman’ as a symbol of mental health, Vogue Portugal’s cover invokes this legacy of patriarchal suppression. Whilst Vogue’s statement defending the cover claimed the shoot explored “the historical context of mental health” and modern “real life … authentic stories” based in “deep research”, the image simply reproduces harmful notions about the “mad woman” whilst divorcing itself from the long history of suffering psychiatrization has wrought and its specifically misogynistic practices.

Undeniably, mental health is a defining issue of the modern era. In October 2019, the WHO estimated that one in four people globally will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives, a figure that is expected to be worsened by the Coronavirus pandemic. The fashion industry is no exception, with the growing number of testimonies from those in the industry such as Kate Moss and Adwoa Aboah and the tragic deaths of designers Alexander McQueen and Kate Spade highlighting the ongoing crisis within the industry. Fashion can provide a legitimate platform for the exploration of mental health – but this cannot be achieved through the same harmful and offensive references. The industry must pledge to do better.

In Conversation with Blanca Schofield Legorburo, the Artist behind Eve Taking A Nude (@evetakinganude)

by Sophie Coldicott

Eve Taking A Nude (@evetakinganude) is an Instagram based art project by third-year MML student Blanca Schofield Legorburo. Although Eve Taking A Nude was started in just May of this year, the account has gained over 1,700 followers in little over two months, and has recently expanded to sell prints and sustainable tote bags. As the name suggests, the project specialises in nudes – however, what is so unique about Eve Taking A Nude is that it relies on self-submission for its subjects. We chatted to Blanca about her art and what the response to the project has been like.

“I am so flattered and humbled by the trust that I’ve been given”, Blanca says. “I’ve received photos from many women I don’t know from different continents and it’s so lovely to be included in their process of embracing their beauty.” 

“The relationship is friendly, but not too intense: they tell me why they want to get involved, I give them permission to send me photos and then I paint them and they tell me a bit about their story for the caption and I delete the photos! Sometimes we stay in touch to talk about flowers they’ve seen or friends who’ve been inspired by the page. It’s all very calm and trusting. I feel very lucky to have been able to talk to and paint all these amazing people!”

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After a lifelong love of art, Blanca started painting frequently again on her year abroad. “I’ve always loved art, but at Cambridge I didn’t have the time or confidence to paint and I focused on collage when I did engage with art. I think it’s very easy at school and at university to stop all your hobbies because you’re not a grade 8 or technically brilliant, especially when we have so many other things to do and ‘achieve’.”

 “I bought a little set of watercolours before moving to Paris and during the nights when I was on my own in my room I would try and listen to podcasts and paint scenes that had struck me. These were usually everyday experiences, such as a colourful kitchen or living room or my hand drawing or pigeons walking along a pond in the park.”

“When I moved to St Petersburg in February I started painting my bath times. I would have a bath every night because it was so cold and I often felt under the weather and baths are so calming. One evening I painted my body in the bath and it came out so calm and honest. So I promised myself that I would start taking nudes for myself and painting them. I put this off until after the COVID panic, but when I was in London living with my sister in quarantine I was painting a lot and then one day I painted a nude with some flowers above it that I had seen on a walk and I jokingly wrote, ‘lol, it’s Eve taking a nude.’ Then I thought…this makes sense! And the next day I painted some friends and made the Instagram account.”

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The name “Eve Taking A Nude” is evocative of the project’s exploration of the complex relationship between many women and their bodies, and its aim in displacing ideas rooted in biblical Original Sin.

“Eve traditionally is thought of as the seductress of shame, a manipulative temptress who forced Adam into misbehaviour and led us into an eternity of body and nudity shame. This narrative has been challenged by many feminists and artists over the years, but I think it is still so pervasive! This idea of blaming women and believing men is so subconsciously inherent in our societies. Victim-blaming, toning down women’s voices and appearances, sexualising women and then shaming them…”

Where the traditional nude depicts women as disembodied objects for visual appreciation, Eve Taking A Nude reclaims that image as a source of feminine celebration, rendering women’s bodies in Blanca’s trademark sunset hues whilst surrounded by flowers she has come across on her quarantine walks. I guess you could say that I wanted to show that every street has its own beauty and there isn’t just one Garden of Eden that we were thrust out of because of some evil Eve!”

106335981_750124105738006_5219509432085971686_n Integral to each piece on Eve Taking A Nude is the story behind it; each painting is accompanied by words from the model about why they wanted to get involved with the project. One model writes “Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding take a massive toll on a woman’s body. I’ve always struggled with body confidence but since having my baby have learnt to embrace it. What others may perceive as flaws are the product of an amazing process I wouldn’t change for anything!” Another writes “In the picture I took, I wasn’t wearing any makeup, my legs were hairy, I have a bit more body fat, and I didn’t even notice. How lovely it is to just be able to ‘be’.”

In retaining the voices of her models so centrally in her artwork, the voicelessness of women in the traditional nude is subverted; more than an object of naked appreciation, Eve is restored her voice, identity and power, displacing “that all-time annoyance: the male gaze!!!”

At its core, this is the message of Eve Taking A Nude – reclaiming women’s bodies and its image for themselves, in all of their diversity.

“So many people love taking nudes for themselves! If we take time to look in the mirror and really see ourselves then our appearance can slowly become less pressurised.”

We don’t do everything for sexual partners and for men! We are looking good for ourselves! There is no one perfect body!”

You can find Eve Taking A Nude on Instagram, or on their website

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If you have an idea you would like to write for the blog, message us on facebook or instagram or email cambridgegirltalk@gmail.com! We would love to hear from you!

More Light: An Interview with Artist Issie Weir

Issie Weir was one of our featured artists at the Girl Talk Exhibition last term. I chatted to her about her paintings and finding time to create.

Hi Issie, thanks for agreeing to chat to me. Can you tell me a bit about the two paintings you had in our exhibition?

I exhibited “Flora” and “Ludo.” Both models are friends I study History of Art with.  I painted “Ludo” first, as from meeting Ludo on the first day of our course I had a really strong vision of how I would like to paint him. I wanted the portrait to be painted in a traditional style with strong chiaroscuro lighting and a black silk dress.  But in discussing the portrait with him the theme of the painting started to develop around the format of a traditional society portrait and how that could be challenged and played around with through androgyny, to almost play a trick on the viewer and require them to spend a little longer looking a little closer, something which we tend not to do when looking at the traditional society portrait hanging in the gallery. 

With “Flora” the aim was a little different.  I had been to the botanical gardens during the Easter term when the orange sunlight was pouring through the glass roof of the conservatory and the colours were so incredibly bright and bold. I wanted to capture that, and Izzy was the perfect person to be captured in it as she has a similar vibrancy.  So we spent the next day in the botanical gardens, quite literally among the plants, embracing them at times, I imagine it was all quite amusing to passersby.  In painting Izzy, I wanted to try to portray a person, character, and emotional depth through light. Light is so fundamental to paintings and while in general it is praised and noted, its specific types and characteristics seem to go unnoticed, or are perhaps too personal to the artist or sitter to have an effect on the viewer.  I wanted to see how I could use its different and specific types and characteristics to express warmth or detachment, or to evoke a certain memory or feeling.  In “Flora” I wanted to capture that beautiful warm and yet bright light which was as much an aspect of her personality as the surroundings. I am looking at this interplay of light and subject matter more at the moment in a short film I’m making and am excited to see where it will lead me. 

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“Ludo”

What is it that draws you to this style of painting?

It was interesting with these two as they were both rather dramatically different styles, one more “finished,” refined and naturalistic and the other slightly geometric and abstract. Both originated from the same classical method which I tend to follow.  I’ve always been drawn towards the more classical and “traditional” style of art, I find the illusion quite fascinating, particularly the realism of textures and drama in certain light effects which could only be produced with the depth and translucency that oils can achieve.  I just wanted to be able to replicate the artists that could do this, and so that’s been the style that I’ve tried to hone my technique towards and those more traditional and often renaissance artists tend to be the artists that I go to for inspiration. 

In “Ludo” I’ve used a limited and cold palette in keeping with a traditional academic technique to create dramatic chiaroscuro lighting but one with an air of cold detachment and elegance.  On more technical note I chose this type of lighting and subject matter to give me a chance to have a go at painting silk.  The style follows a more traditional technique, which begins with a raw umber underpainting and is built up through a limited palette mixed into shadows, midtones and highlights, so this one is less experimental in style but perhaps more so in subject matter.  However, in general my style is still very much in a development stage and so I am trying to experiment and not get tied to any one style quite yet. 

“Flora” actually just began as an underpainting on top of which I would refine the details so she would eventually have a similar finish to “Ludo.” However when I stood back and looked at it I really liked it as it was, the colors had just worked in creating the warmth I was going for, and I liked the contrast between the soft colors and the slightly more geometric lines. The result was something a little different to what I had intended, and it became a catalyst for trying out more colorful and funky underpaintings in later works to see how this would affect the vibrancy and lend a nuance to the light. So, in that way it opened a door to experiment again with oil paints, looking to find new limits. 

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“Flora”

How do you make time to paint in your schedule? Does inspiration come to you at once or do you set aside time on purpose?

So for the larger paintings I tend to store up ideas until the holidays when I’ll just go on a spree of binge painting.  During term I keep a sketch book on me all the time, just a little pocket one, it’s just for jotting down ideas, life drawing and sketching people or compositions for paintings I might work up later.  Inspiration really comes in fits and spurts at fairly random times.  I find trying to force inspiration at a particular time just doesn’t work, a bit like when someone asks you your favorite film and then you can’t think of a single film let alone your favorite. 

But on the other hand, if you have the inkling of an idea or a theme then setting aside time or just letting it mull over in the back of your mind can be quite good for developing ideas. Sometimes I know it sounds stupid but I genuinely have had dreams about some of these ideas and then have had to jot them down at about 3 in the morning, it’s a sort of ongoing thing. 

I have been working on a project with a friend this term to do with muses which has been fun and a nice thing to run alongside the general hecticness of Cambridge. 

Have you been finding time to create during lockdown? Does art help you get through times of stress?

Yeah lockdown has actually been really quite helpful for general painting productivity.  I’ve just been trying to get back into the swing of painting, it always takes a bit of time after a while away from it, I’ve been working on a series of “quarantine portraits” of everyone in my family as its quite rare at the moment that they are all home.  I haven’t started anything big yet just because of lack of large boards at the moment.  It has also been quite nice to have the time to experiment with different media without getting distracted or putting it off until I have time, so I’ve been working on a short film about light which has been fun, just in terms of teaching myself how to film and edit.  Other creative moments have included a cardboard puppet head the other day for no particularly good reason than I had a cardboard box that needed using and the time.

Art definitely helps me when I’m stressed.  I think it’s partly just the manual aspect of it, having something to do with my hands which also occupies my mind is just very calming.  It’s also an excuse to just have time in my own world. 

Find more pieces like these on Issie’s Instagram @belle_arts

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A Short Meditation on Sofa Beds: A Conversation with Helen Grant

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Can you tell me a bit about A Short Meditation on Sofa Beds?

It’s a comic that does what it says on the tin, really – thinks about sofa beds. I moved to Paris in September to start my year abroad, and found myself taking up a ritual that had punctuated my mum’s daily existence when I was small: folding away and unfolding her bed. I’dnever really properly appreciated her situation as a single parent fudging solutions as she went along. I wanted to represent that odd, personal, slightly dark corner of family history somehow – it kept going round and round in my head – so one day I just sat myself down and sketched it all out. It was ultimately quite a slow development process, and by the time I’d finished all the illustrations and posted it on Instagram, I’d had to leave France because of the coronavirus. I wasn’t totally happy with the final draft, but I thought it was better to let it go rather than keeping tinkering around with it.

What is it about illustration that you like so much?

I always say I like art but I’m not massively art literate. I usually mean I like the pictures in books, and if I like any fine art it’s often because it looks like it would look nice in a book. I brought picture books with me to Cambridge in my first year because they felt like the most beautiful, warm, comforting, inspiring things I owned. A good illustrator will make any story a thousand times funnier, more powerful, more poignant. And I like the way illustrations can either agree with or challenge a writer. There’s something equally pleasing about a comic or graphic novel where the style of the art and words seem to completely harmonize together, and a novel whose picturesare far more playful and experimental than the sentences alone might suggest.

How has getting creative helped you out in times of crisis?

I can’t think of anything else as simultaneously soothing and infuriating as art. It’s like putting my brain in a different box. It gives me technical problems I can solve rather than real world problems that are out of my hands. I really struggled living on my own in France, and rediscovering drawing and painting in that time was the biggest saviour. I drafted cartoons on post-its at my desk at work and absorbed myself with more complicated pieces at home. It let me feel proud of myself and my output and hopeful about my capacity to improve.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a go?

Expose yourself to a huge mixture of artists and styles! That’s what makes Instagram so brilliant. It’s so freeing to be able to see the bajillion different ways of going about making art. I think artists like Ruby Etc. and David Shrigley are really interesting here because their work doesn’t *look*intimidatingly technical. As a beginner you can immediately see that you don’t have to aim to end up at some terrifying hyperrealism for your output to be meaningful and exciting. And I’d also say that playing around with materials in a kind of abstract way can be really fulfilling. Paint in a colour you like and try out different shapes and lines. And look at little patterns and details in art that you really like. Make them yours.

Let’s Get Fat Together: our unhealthy obsession with exercise during lockdown

Rebecca Ebner-Landy 

The arrival of coronavirus has brought with it the arrival of new restrictions, and for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, it is all too familiar. I have just recovered from an eating disorder and now again find my life controlled by a sinister rulebook l know frustratingly well – just this time I’m not the one writing it. With briefings telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing – one form of exercise a day – the implicit media standards and silent pressures so many of us feel have now become direct commands. Suddenly everyone is saying “I should do more exercise because I don’t want to put on weight”, or “I’ve got to be careful I don’t snack too much given the circumstances”, or “I should eat less of this” as the prospect of food shortages becomes real. 

I’m angry that the front page of the Times’ weekend supplement is: “Offset your calories — how not to get fat at home”, instructing me on how many times I need to run up the stairs in my house to counterbalance the glass of wine I drank with my friends on Zoom last night. “30 minutes with Joe Wicks” allows me – yes “allows” is the word used – a slice of cake. Thank you so much Joe for permitting me such a luxury, and thank you too for your presumption that we all live in big houses with stairs. What would in normal times be no more than a passing comment about a post-work visit to the gym has now become the topic of conversation, the social media post, and has generated an exercise culture that is all the more compulsive and competitive. Whenever I’m online I’m being shamed by someone, somewhere saying: “You haven’t done Zoom yoga?”, “You haven’t run 5km for NHS heroes?”, “You haven’t livestreamed Zumba?”. Questions which make you ask yourself – if someone else hasn’t asked you already – “what then have I been doing instead?” 

Run faster, look thinner, do more … Aren’t we allowed to just sit and think about the strange madness of the situation – how it’s hard and how we feel scared or uncertain or depressed and perhaps, because of this, we may not want to, or not be able to do anything at all? Or do we all have to be exercising all the time? 

I’m angry because it seems that the people who go on these well-broadcasted runs are precisely the people who ignore the social distancing rules. The parks are filled with joggers weaving in and out of the dotted walkers, leaving their unwelcome scent as they brush past. 

When a jogger’s only mechanical thought is time, distance, and calories “offset”, it seems that social distancing isn’t always on their mind. Perhaps this is why I find them constantly coming too close for comfort, too close for safety. 

This is a time which we’ll look back on: judging ourselves and being judged by others for the decisions we made. What will we choose to be more important? The pleasure of posting your crafted physique in your Lululemon gear? Or the feeling that it’s probably going to make someone else – the self-isolaters, the shielders, the disabled, the depressed, your own friends who may want to exercise but can’t – feel absolutely awful. It’s like we’re at war so we should treat it as one and in these moments of uncertainty, fear and sadness, turn to collective solidarity instead: boosting people’s morale and spirits. We should run because it makes us feel good, because we enjoy it, with a favourite song blasting, half-dancing and on top of the world. 

And if we’re not out running – why should any of us have to? – let’s not let Joe Wicks become our new Shakespeare, Stormzy and Meryl Streep. Since when did exercise culture replace real culture? Has freedom become something that can only be had in the one hour of exercise, or can we get freedom within the confines of our home as we discover new worlds in books and music and films and recipes? Have we forgotten how much joy can be had from reading a great book, as you shut the back cover? Some of our freedoms have been restricted – and for good reason – but let’s enjoy the ones we have left, freedoms we so often ignore. 

So, when you’re cooking and baking and sourdough-bread making, don’t caveat it with a comment about putting on weight. “Do these cookies cancel out my run?”, “I’ll add that to my corona-kilos”, “Stay home and get fat”. Yes, you’re going to put on some weight but hey, we all will, so what’s the big deal? Let’s get fat together and accept it – collective solidarity – instead of trying to constantly outrun each other. 

And for eating disorder survivors and sufferers, accepting this will be even harder. The idea of being locked inside for an indefinite period of time, not able to buy familiar foods, or having someone do your shopping for you is already terrifying. A social media world filled with people bragging about the amount of exercise they’re doing makes it so much worse. Recovery is tough enough as it is so, please, for me, for all the people out there who are just about surviving this period, think twice before posting about your 5km run.

C13FA9DF-2B71-4A9F-81AA-F899D9C265CAimages by @eldabroglio

For Now: Photos and Words by Helena Fox

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returned 

to the nest

A bundle of 

relief and 

questions.

And feathers. 

Should I sharpen myself –

all teeth and claws and twigs and brittle –

Or double down, downy soft and swaddled

In lie ins and childhood toys? 

I flew the nest once

And will fly it again 

And though I am 

Angry and hurt

And my claws

Are sharp,

Burnt out

Brittle

Bony

For now, 

go 

softly.

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Finding inspiration and creativity in the natural world: an interview with artist Elizabeth Robson

Elizabeth Robson is an artist who paints a lot with oil paints. We exhibited a few of her pieces at our exhibition last term. I chatted to her this week about her work.

Hi Lizzy! Can you tell us a bit about the animals you paint and how you got started?

I was horse-crazy growing up so I spent my childhood drawing and painting horses – which eventually morphed into painting pet portraits for friends, first as gifts and then as commissions. I really enjoy portraits and it’s an honour to capture something of the essence of somebody’s special pet.

I discovered oil paints during GCSE art, and immediately fell in love with their buttery texture and slow drying time, leaving ample opportunity for luscious blending. When I’m painting for myself rather than as a commission, my work tends to have a slight fantasy feel. I enjoy trying to capture movement and light, as well as all the little details.

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What inspires you to make art?

I’m always inspired by nature, especially animals, and love to paint beautiful things in wonderful colours. Seeing other people’s art also inspires me to experiment with new techniques and things I haven’t tried before. I often paint from photographs, where something about the light or shape or movement will have caught my eye and made me think ‘I must paint that!’

However in the last year I’ve tried to go with the flow more and see what comes out of my brush… It’s really exciting just throwing paint at the page not knowing where it’s going or what the finished piece will look like.

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Life is pretty bizarre right now. Do you find getting creative helps you out during tough times?

Yeah, it’s a strange time – I’m revising like mad for finals at the moment but took a day off on Easter Sunday to get the paints out, and it was so relaxing. There’s now three backgrounds on my desk next to my work, and my brain is buzzing with ideas of what subjects to add to them… creativity is not only escapism for me, it reminds me of the beauty there is in the world. I’ve also been really uplifted by the artists I follow on Instagram, how they are coping at the moment and the beautiful things they are still creating.

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What advice would you give to someone who wants to do something creative during lockdown but can’t seem to get started?

Tricky one – it depends what’s holding you back! If it’s lack of time, give yourself permission to prioritise your mental health and creative side, and set aside some time to create. If it’s insecurity, pick up your pen or brush and don’t let yourself put it down for a full 10 minutes – just create something, anything, and enjoy the process rather than judging the result! If it’s creative block, find something beautiful to copy, or a tutorial on the internet. Put on a playlist and a light a candle, or go out into the garden with a sketch pad, and make space for your inner artist. Enjoy it!

You can find more of Lizzy’s work on instagram @elizabeth_robson_art

A Strange Spring, with a Silver Birch

Blanca Schofield Legorburo

After breakfast at noon I walk back to my room and lie on my bed. A foggy head and heavy limbs detain me. I am stuck. Stuck in this rut of not much. The restlessness of a morning gone, of self-set so-called tasks unmet, fill my whole until my stomach is churning. 

I look to the left. The ground is divided into pale yellow and grey yellow, but starkly so. It’s sunny. Very sunny. “Oooookay,” I stretch. “Come on.”

Rolling onto the floor, I get up and make a little pile of books and art supplies. In the hall I grab the mat and slip on my shoes. Then, I’m outside. 

Nobody is in the garden, which is nice (and! safe!) but also a shame given that the blue of the sky is illumined by a sun so bright it’s practically laughing with joy and freedom. 

On the grass I unfold the mat and lay it down beside a tree in the corner. It’s a thin-trunked tree, offering only the lightest of dappled shade, but a good place for a mat nonetheless. And I lie down, arm over face. Breathe deep. 

Some time later I remove the arm from my face and open my eyes to look up. Above me, ruffling feathers of green spread their wings, not quite shading, but adding to the pearl-haze blue of the sky. A canopy of companionship embraces me in its green, silver-brown. I close my eyes and breathe deep anew.

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Introducing The Minerva Festival: Celebrating Women and Non-Binary Composers

This week, we spoke to The Minerva Festival about the amazing work they are doing to help lift up the work of women and non binary composers.

The festival turns two this year! Could you tell us a bit about why it was set up in 2018?

The festival was set up by our 2018-19 chairs, Laura and Claire because they noticed that opportunities to hear music by women and non-binary people in Cambridge are rare and can often be quite tokenistic: most, if not all, of the music in the classical canon is by men and so it is unfortunately relatively common to attend concerts where all of the music is by male composers. Most of the music studied in the Music tripos is also typically by male composers and the number of female students who take the composition options is quite low. The festival (known in 2018-19 as the Cambridge Female Composers Festival) was set up, then, to try and remedy this by providing spaces to encourage the performance and study of music by women and non-binary people. 

What barriers are still in place for women and non binary people in composing in 2020?

While many women and non-binary composers are active in composition at the moment, the fact that composition faculties are dominated by men, all the ‘great works’ a musician may ever play or study were written by men, and only male composers are deserving of a place in the concert hall, history books, and podiums gives the illusion that there is no historical precedent for what we do, and that we are alone. Even though women are now allowed to study composition, the socially and institutionally-ingrained idea of the male composer-genius are hard to defeat, and no doubt influence the way compositional endeavours by female and non-binary composers are received. Hence, while in 2020, equality seems apparent on the surface, we still have a long way to go to achieve true parity between genders. 

How have you gone about finding music written by women and non binary people from history when they have been so overlooked?

There are some helpful online resources, such as the ‘1200 Years of Women Composers’ playlist on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7mgjMnYI9ERG1598WKpFUR?si=jFnjU8jqQ8uA3QcFDwc2cA). Twitter has also proved a useful tool for asking others for music suggestions which we may not have come across! Some people have also drawn upon their past performance experiences, although unfortunately it isn’t rare for people to have never performed music by a woman or non-binary person. It can be quite difficult to find music as, particularly in the past, women have had limited access to publishing opportunities; however, there is still a lot out there that is relatively easy to find. 

Susan Rutherford has also recently taught an optional course called “Women in Music” in Part 1B of the Music Tripos, which has been immensely helpful in embedding female composers in their respective social and historical contexts, and introducing their works to undergraduates in an educational context. The inclusion of this course has definitely been a major step for the music faculty; however, one will still have to do much scavenging until female and non-binary composers are integrated into the compulsory history courses in schools and universities around the globe. 

What made you want to get involved?

Hannah: The main reason for me was my growing frustration with the limited opportunities available to study music by women and non-binary people during the first and second years of my degree. Although studying this music would have been possible in coursework, they were literally non-existent when it came to lectures and supervision work. There was also a bit of a myth that went around that women didn’t really compose or that, when they did, it simply wasn’t very good… These frustrations inspired me to join the committee in 2018 as one of the recital representatives, so I could help show that this wasn’t the case and that it isn’t just men who deserve a place on the syllabus! 

Leia: Since starting my degree at Cambridge (and indeed moving to the UK!) I have been extremely aware of the peripheral position I occupy in the Western Classical tradition, being both a woman and a person of colour. Although I knew of women of colour who were actively involved in Classical Music, we were not reflected in history and did not merit admiration as composers. So when I heard about the Cambridge Female Composers Festival as a fresher, I was very excited at the prospect of being represented, and that there was a group of people trying to correct these historical injustices in the most meaningful way: by sharing music. I attended as many of the concerts as I could, and remember being really moved by the closing concert. I joined the committee in 2019 hoping to continue the great work! 

How has the festival been going so far?

The festival has been running since the end of January, and so far it has been going really well! We have held a number of successful events, including a jazz night, several evensongs and a coding workshop. We are also very grateful to everyone who has chosen to donate to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre (who we are supporting at each event), as our collecting tins are already getting full!

What are you hoping for the future of the festival?

We hope that Minerva will continue to run for as long as it seems to be making a difference! It will be a slightly bittersweet moment when we end as, hopefully, that will mean there is enough diversity in music being performed here that we don’t need to run a festival! In the meantime, though, we hope to continue running a successful recital and concert series and inspiring others to continue engaging with this music outside of the festival.

Is there anything in particular you’d recommend coming up?

Hannah: I am looking forward to our series of talks, beginning with Sarah MacDonald’s illustrated lecture on women and liturgical music on 21 February in Great St Mary’s.

Leia: I’m really looking forward to the closing concert on 8 March in St. Giles church – where we’ll be able to hear the choral work by the composition competition winner, alongside a whole Symphony by Alice Smith and the amazing Entr’acte for strings by Caroline Shaw. I’m a bit nervous, but I hope to do justice to the Shaw as a conductor! 

 

For more information about the festival, visit https://www.minervafestival.org

The Toxicity of New Year’s Resolution Culture

By Carlotta Wright

Dry January. Veganuary. Januhairy. Taking out a gym membership. Drinking more water. Achieving inner peace. We’re bombarded with online content about New Year’s resolutions come the new year, but how does this look mid to late January? For me, that’s when the shiny newness of the year wears off and the grey January blues set in. Studies show that a third of resolutions do not make it past the first month.

I wanted to start off this year’s column with this topic, now that we’re a few weeks into the year and one week into term, because I know a lot of people feel the same – it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for becoming your best self a few weeks into the 365-day slog.

It’s not uncommon to feel anxiety and pressure. I personally love New Year’s – the feeling of rebirth, of possibility. It’s an artificial excuse to start again, a socially constructed pat on the back that tells you, “It’s a blank slate from now on”. It feels like a cosmic second chance of sorts.

But others hate it, and that’s just as valid. The expectation to look back and count up your successes and failures often feels too much, and is especially daunting for people with bad mental health or going through difficult life circumstances. Why do we do this in the first place? The pressure to make sure this year will be the year, your year, surely can’t be good for anyone.

My New Year’s resolution list this year was incredibly vague. I’ve always been like that – as much as I love the whole energy of the new year, the idea of creating a big list to hold myself accountable to has always filled me anxiety. I just knew vaguely the changes I hoped I’d make to my life this year. Drinking more water was one of them, as well as hopefully getting my writing published somewhere.

But there are pitfalls to this vaguer approach too. I was at the pub with friends a few days into January, describing the gist of my resolutions. It was pointed out to me that what I was essentially describing was inner peace. Full disclosure, I haven’t achieved self-actualisation yet.

I think there’s definitely a gendered aspect to the ‘new year’s resolution culture’ and to the productivity cult of recent years in general. Women especially seem to espouse the resolution of going to the gym, losing weight in the new year, when there’s evolutionary reasons why we gain weight in winter. Social media is already full of scrutiny, and it’s just made worse when you’ve been socialised to pick apart every aspect of your appearance, body and self all your life.

Another side to the discourse on New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen crop up a lot more lately online is ‘manifestation culture’. What is it exactly? For the uninitiated (like me), it’s essentially a more galaxy-brained way of saying “positive thinking”. It’s based on the law of attraction, and holds that our thoughts affect our reality, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s about keeping good vibes around you, mostly, and “the ability to attract into our lives whatever we are focusing on.”

But how does this fit in what we know about structures of raced, classed and gendered oppression? This New Year I’ve seen a lot of people talking about ‘manifesting the life you want’ for 2020. But if you have anxiety or depression, you can’t just decide to manifest positive things because your brain chemistry has turned against you. VICE also pointed out that putting such high importance on our thoughts goes totally against professional mental health advice to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder: your thoughts are just thoughts, nothing else.

It all goes back to the cult of productivity, which is simply unhealthy. We are more than we achieve and produce.

That’s often what makes me feel funny about all the Twitter threads and instagram stories around the 31st of December that recount (often month by month!) what that person achieved that year. The fear of comparison adds extra pressure when compiling New Year’s resolution lists, to make them as ambitious as possible, and it can definitely create a foreboding feeling towards the end of the year when we haven’t ticked enough items off our metaphorical, or literal, lists.

Of course, I’m not dismissing all efforts at self-improvement. It can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. But when does this urge go too far? In our increasingly fast-paced, commercialised, capital-driven world, you’re valued for what you produce. But not every hobby has to be a side-hustle.

You don’t have to manifest all your goals to be worthy as a person. New year’s resolutions often, whether we want to or not, end up being about targeting a multitude of micro-flaws we see in ourselves or our lives.

Maybe we should ditch the concept of resolutions entirely. Naz Beheshti, an “executive wellness coach” recommends that we focus instead on daily, weekly and monthly “intentions” of things we want to change, rather than one big intimidating list. That job title aside, it seems a better strategy to break down your desired life transformations into more manageable chunks, turning them from “resolutions” into something a bit less pressure-based.

There’s a difference between calmly working to build better habits and obsessing over the need to fix problems we are told we have. Whether its post-holiday weight, drinking more water, doing dry January, give yourself space to fail. And finally, give yourself the gift of indulgence. New years resolution culture often has a very spartan feel about it, and it’s just not good vibes.

Art by Maggie Stephenson

‘Joker’ shows how it could have been any of us

It opens with a dim room, reminiscent of New York lofts. The camera pans towards our isolated protagonist painting his face, spotlighted by the warm bulbs lining the mirror. Zooming intimately in, we are brought face to face, almost uncomfortably close, with Joaquin Phoenix (playing Arthur Fleck, the man we eventually know as Joker) as he stares at his white-coated reflection. The camera draws to his hands hovering indecisively over the paints, fidgeting unsettlingly. It is this constant element of the unsettling that director Todd Phillips aims to portray throughout his film, which complements the prevalent dramatic irony. Arthur’s blank eyes starkly contrast the immediate moment after, when his hands physically contort his face into a smile, then into a sad face. With the last smile he pulls up, we see a teardrop through an extreme close-up shot, leaving a bead of blue eye makeup rolling down.

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This powerful first impression struck a chord with me, as it likely did with others in the cinema that night—this act of forcing on a mask to conceal the turmoil underneath. Now the first R-rated film to make $1billion in global ticket sales since its official release on 4 October this year, Joker has become the most profitable comic book movie of all time, despite not being released in China (with the film’s political undertones, one could speculate why that is).

Following an impressive legacy of iconic Jokers (excluding Jared Leto, apologies Suicide Squad), Phoenix demystifies this infamous character through his performance tracing the origins of this supervillain, and perhaps simultaneously, explores the roots of many contemporary sources of evil. Co-written by Scott Silver and Phillips himself, Joker contextualises Arthur Fleck in his own life, constituted by unfortunate events and failed relationships, and a Gotham society proliferated by socio-economic inequality and increasing unrest. Arthur epitomises neglect and devaluation, both by the people in his life, as well as by wider society and the government. Contrary to fellow Marvel/DC comic book adaptations, Joker delves into the genre of psychological thriller, providing a plausible backstory of Batman’s nemesis—one that perhaps hits too close to reality.

Like many box-office films that have dealt with controversial themes, Joker has proved divisive. It has been criticised for being a “dangerous” film that is unnecessary when mass shooters, most of whom match Arthur’s profile (traumatised, radical, and lonely white men), are rampant across the US. Instead of condemning Arthur’s brutality, he stands atop a police car, glamorised as the revolutionary in the narrative of underdogs overthrowing elites. Phillips and the team have come under fire for glorifying violence, idolising the protagonist who “could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels” (referring to misogynistic men sharing anti-feminist hate online). These are valid criticisms. Such a high-profile film carries the risk of promoting violence in popular media. And with its enormous success, some may argue, the responsibility of not perpetuating this culture of violence falls all the heftier.

However, the film equally had the productive potential for flagging the widespread inaction off-screen towards, and highlighting the urgency of confronting them. There appeared for me, elements of the everyman in Arthur, which could resonate (at least to some level) with individual viewers. Of course, one may argue that casting this cold-blooded killer under a sympathetic light unrightfully excuses his violence, as if experiencing suffering gives you an automatic green card to inflict violence. I think that would be oversimplifying. By creating this character who for much of the film, was grounded in the mundane rhythms of everyday life, as opposed to a larger-than-life supervillain persona, Joker points to how it could have been any of us.

Ultimately, Arthur Fleck was just an ordinary person. However, under those specific conditions, encountering certain people at those exact times, this man was moulded to evolve into what he became. In some ways, humanising the Joker to construct a somewhat relatable character, served as a tool to underline the role of wider social, political and economic structures. None of us are immune to them and therefore, any of us can be subject to their injustices as Arthur was, creating prime conditions for a dangerous downfall (or here, the rise of the Joker). Gotham’s issues parallel those in our off-screen world, such as gun violence, the declining welfare state, wealth gap, and treatment of mental health. The consequences of inaction (or indifference) by Gotham’s government and elites, proved dire in the film—a foreboding commentary on real life.

The film confronts the problematic aspects of the state and its elites, admittedly sometimes in a heavy-handed way, but gave me hope that a mainstream film unabashedly delivers important political commentary. The persisting theme of an indifferent, ineffective state that has consistently rejected its citizens’ demands, brewing long-term resentment that consequently sparks widespread chaos, reminded me of recent global protests—Iran, Chile, Lebanon and my home city of Hong Kong. The urban scenes in Joker looked eerily familiar.

Another significant issue is that of mental health, which our protagonist suffers from, along with chronic illness. Having been confined to a psychiatric ward previously, Arthur was categorised as needing to be treated, medicalised and segregated from society. His ill mother, Penny, is similar. Both their treatments have proved ineffective and lack sustained support for long-term recovery, paralleling the inadequate mental health support from real-life institutions. The recurrent motif of ‘putting on a happy face’ was instilled in Arthur early on, when his mother said his life purpose is to bring laughter to the world. Arthur’s case, albeit an extreme one, shows how negatively an individual can be affected. Although we have progressed, mental health remains a taboo subject, causing individuals to feel they need to literally mask their troubles, thereby preventing intervention where help is most needed.

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Despite incorporating those aforementioned issues, one shortcoming is Joker’s representation of people (particularly women) of colour (POC/WOC). When it came to unpacking the casting choices of the main five women Arthur interacts with, I was stumped explaining the significance of casting WOC for four. This could be positive—Hollywood finally “blind casting”! I would suggest otherwise. The black women in the film lacked character development, basically just props to our white, male protagonist—visible but not seen. For example, Arthur’s delusional love interest, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), is a tired single mother living in a run-down building. This may be done to highlight how much the movie’s flawed society (thus, our flawed society) disproportionately disadvantages certain people facing a “double jeopardy” (being black and female). But all of their appearances are relatively fleeting, and nearly all meet ‘the struggling but strong black woman’ stereotype, which unintentionally burdens individuals and boxes WOC into a two-dimensional image. Phillips’ choice to cut the scene revealing Sophie’s fate, further causes us to scrutinise how much tangible progress is being made in diversifying the silver screen when the full stories of these WOC are essentially ignored and excluded?

Overall, despite its controversies, Joker is undeniably a thought-provoking film. The success and ethics surrounding how it deals with difficult subjects can be debated. Nonetheless, the fact the film got people debating in the first place, is in my opinion, more important than its flaws. It covers a plethora of highly relevant topics, with the productive potential of inciting conversations amongst viewers on topics they may not regularly consider, but as Arthur’s trajectory shows, indeed affects each one of us. If, as Phillips asserts, “outrage is a commodity”, then I think Joker mobilised it well.

 

 

 

Lessons from living abroad

The Year Abroad. An opportunity to develop your INDEPENDENCE, experience a new CULTURE and boost your CAREER PROSPECTS. All of the above are buzzwords taken directly from numerous presentations given to apprehensive second year MMLers, most of whom are experiencing a confusing mix of desperate excitement to escape the Cambridge bubble and wishing that nothing had to change.

The months leading up to a year abroad departure are clouded with so much logistical planning that the emotional upheaval is somewhat brushed aside. As you’re bombarded with emails from the YA Office which promise certain death if you don’t hand in forms stating your new address by the deadline, the often stressful and isolating reality of what lies ahead is overlooked. Academic contact drops off fairly drastically as soon as you leave the country and unfortunately, that also means that pastoral care can be hard to come by. For any second year MMLers out there: this article isn’t intended to put you off the coming year. It’s just a warning that the home comforts of Cambridge aren’t as easy to find in Paris or Buenos Aires or Moscow.

Even with previous experience of living abroad alone, adjusting to life away from the small Cambridge circles was challenging. In hindsight, I probably relied too much on my gap year experiences when I left for my third year and spent the weeks before I left telling myself ‘it’s fine, you’ve done this before’. The difference is that at the end of school everyone leaves the same environment and goes into something completely new, whilst on a year abroad, the unfortunate reality is that Cambridge still exists without you in it. Lectures restart, Bridgemas still gets celebrated and that’s hard to watch when you’re thousands of miles away.

Without a doubt, the most damaging thing you can do is check Instagram. Heed my advice, DELETE IT! My heart would sink every time a new story came up from one of my friends in Cambridge and eventually the gods at Android realised my pain and the app miraculously stopped working on my phone. At first, I felt even more cut off not being up to date with Cambridge news but after a few days I realised how much lighter I felt not knowing what was going on. A year abroad is about making the most of wherever you are and for lots of people, that involves partially cutting themselves off from uni events and friends. It’s impossible to get immersed in your new life abroad and stay in the loop with everything at uni too. You can’t live two lives at once.

Don’t believe people who say they loved every minute of their year abroad: it’s not true. Of course, most MMLers have amazing experiences during their travels but the rest of the time is made up of ‘normal life’ stuff which in my case often involves hours of Netflix and avoiding doing work. Having a personal crisis because you’re sat at home alone on a Friday night is completely understandable but also unnecessary. Don’t beat yourself up because you spend time alone or with other English people or international students – not every day can be ground-breaking and enlightening.

The change which affected me the most was the sudden loss of my closest female friends. I was lucky enough to have a circle of incredibly strong women around me in Cambridge who, regardless of the problem, were always there to comfort me, listen to me and bring me back to reality when necessary. Not being able to walk next door and be in the company of your best friend is so disorientating, especially when you’ve spent the last two years relying on them for emotional support. Dealing with loneliness, not feeling integrated into where I was living and, to top it all off, a recent break up was incredibly difficult without my friends. While at the time the isolation felt painful, it also proved to me that I was capable of coping with challenging times alone. Of course, phone calls home helped a lot but the fact that I managed to stick it out in a country I didn’t know with people I wasn’t that close with showed me how resilient I am.

While Cambridge does inevitably carry on without you that doesn’t mean that people forget you. Long distance friendship entails as much effort and reward as a long-distance relationship. I can safely say that both those travelling and those left in Cambridge value nothing more than talking to a long-distance friend. Outside perspectives are invaluable for both parties and thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, no one is ever too far away. The YA is temporary, but good friends aren’t.

Moving abroad is a test of your strength of character and anyone who even manages to get on the plane has already passed.

Dear MMLers, all of the YA Office’s selling points are true: a year away is so much more than a CV building opportunity. Throughout the months you spend abroad you will learn so much about your will-power, tenacity and ability to make the best of situations. After what hasn’t been an easy five months by any stretch of the imagination, I now feel ready to embark on the next six, with even more confidence in the strength of my friendships back home.

The Case for Mediocrity

In a story very common to students at Cambridge, I always did well in school. I got upset if I got an A not an A*, or God forbid a B. As a result of this, my self-worth and identity were very much tied up with my grades and the praise of my teachers. This, in a shocking turn of events, was very unhealthy. When I started my course here, the realisation that I was not even average, let alone the best was one that hit quite hard. Who was I if I wasn’t the smart one? What would define my worth if I wasn’t doing well academically?

I have spent the last couple of years really struggling to keep up, always feeling like everyone else finds it so much easier than me and not understanding why. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I won’t ever be the best here, and that’s okay. It’s taken a long time to get over the idea that I had to do something really well for it to be something fulfilling.

And Cambridge extra-curriculars don’t help with this a lot of the time. There’s a lot of competitiveness here and that translates into extracurricular stuff where it often seems like you have to be really good at something to join it. There seems to be little space for just being ok.

In my first year, I started drawing as a kind of therapy. I was at a really low point and often felt like I couldn’t even begin to do my work as it was just too much to handle. Drawing provided a space for me where I could do something non-academic that I didn’t have to share with anyone if I didn’t want to. It was my secret hobby and therefore had absolutely no pressure attached to it. I didn’t have to be the best because no one would see. If I messed it up, that was fine, I could throw it away and never think about it again.

Drawing gave me immense fulfillment even though I am not very good at it. I am still not very good at it. And that’s okay. It’s been life changing to realise that I can do something just because I like the action of doing it. I like the feeling of scribbling my pencil, I like the quiet, meditative feeling I get, and I like the act of making something just for me.

Being mediocre can be really freeing as it takes away the pressure of maintaining or improving how good you are. Over the last couple of years I’ve definitely improved somewhat, but I’m still no Picasso, and that’s fine. I know I don’t have to be.

This year I’m trying to focus on the achievements in my life that aren’t academic, things that define who I am regardless of what other people or supervisors think. I am creative, and kind. I am a loyal friend and a good listener. I am fit and strong. And I like drawing. I really like drawing.

Being the best isn’t important to me anymore and I’m trying to surround myself with people who think the same way. The competitive atmosphere here can be exhausting sometimes and I feel so lucky to have friends who are less affected by it. I know now that I am so much more than my grades and that I have value that comes from myself, not from the validation of getting praise for my work.

I am absolutely mediocre, and that’s great.