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 The consensus in the comments section, and across social media at large, was that the depiction was outdated and offensive.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 it’s 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 traditional nudes depict 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.

joker

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.

Queer women and non-binary singers to add to your playlists

Support the LGBT+ community with your clicks, your views, your listens, your shares! Here’s a list of some of my favourite queer women and non-binary singers to diversify your listening. Hopefully there’s something for everyone here.

Christine and the QueensHéloïse Letissier, Christine and the Queens

Chris is a French singer-songwriter and releases songs in English and French who identifies as gender queer and pansexual. Her music has a pop feel with Janet Jackson as a big inspiration for her latest album. Her music is fun, sexy, and powerful.

Fun fact: I bought a blazer from Zara because she was modelling it. Moral of the story? I am a sucker for advertising and hot people in suits. But do I look fantastic in a blazer? Absolutely.

Song to start with: 5 dol

Iconic lyric: what if the obvious is suddenly so insane?

 

Clairoclairo

Clairo is perfect for fans of soft indie rock. Her latest album Immunity is relaxed with plenty of songs about unrequited love and learning to be comfortable with the unknown. Have a watch of her genius video explaining the song Bags for more of an insight into what her music is about.

Song to start with: Softly

Iconic lyric: Sofia I know that you and I shouldn’t feel like a crime

 

King Princess2019 Lollapalooza - Day 1

Anyone who knows me knows I literally cannot shut up about King Princess. I am pretty much convinced she is a goddess sent from gay heaven to taunt me. A New York native, she just released her first full album in October after releasing an EP in 2018. Her sound is fairly chilled with gorgeous vocals and lyrics that appeal to anyone who was an angsty teen and is now an angsty twenty-something. When does this angsty phase end by the way? Asking for a friend.

Song to start with: 1950

Iconic lyric: I rule with the velvet tongue, with my dress undone

 

Princess Nokianokia

Princess Nokia is hip-hop singer and rapper. She’s an intersectional feminist who is keen for women of colour to take up space. Her lyrics are always clever and range from rapping about her upbringing, to her sexuality, to the state of New York City. Her album 1992 Deluxe has a great mix of low-fi hip-hop tracks and others with a nostalgic 90s and early 2000s RnB feel. Whatever the track, her sound is powerful and sexy.

Song to start with: Tomboy

Iconic lyric: A nerdy girl with nymphomanic tendencies

 

St Vincentvincent

Since starting her career touring with Sufjan Stevens in his band, St Vincent has released a wide range of experimental tracks. She takes inspiration from Kate Bush, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix. She’s said before that her music is so changeable as it reflects her life living with anxiety. Everything can change in a moment and she channels this in her songs. 

Song to start with: Masseducation

Iconic lyric: I can’t turn off what turns me on

 

Girl in Redred

Girl in Red is another queen for those with angsty souls. Her indie-rock tracks are written, recorded and produced in her bedroom in Norway. Her song “we fell in love in October” is particularly lovely. She’s said in an interview that it’s about the joy of experiencing being in love with her first girlfriend after a long time of struggling to accept herself. Just shouting “my girl!” over and over again.

Song to start with: I’ll die anyway

Iconic lyric: you will be my world, my girl

 

Janelle Monáejanelle

Once again, anyone who knows me knows I won’t stop forcing them to listen to Janelle Monáe. Her music is an eclectic mix of hip-hop, RnB, rock, and pop. Her most recent album is especially incredible lyrically, with plenty of comment on the state of the US at the moment. Older albums take a lot of influence from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” with the idea of the robotic woman as a recurrent theme.

Song to start with: Take a Byte

Iconic lyric: Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas, while they blocking equal pay, sipping on they coca-colas

 

Emily Kingemily

Somewhere between RnB, soul, and pop, everything Emily King has released absolutely bangs. Another New Yorker, she’s toured with John Legend, Floetry, Alicia Keys, and Erykah Badu. When I saw this queen live last year (pun unintended, flex absolutely intended) it was one of the best gigs I have ever been to. Her voice is so soulful and controlled.

Song to start with: Look at me now

Iconic lyric: always know when the last smile has been drawn, so you won’t have to give too much of yourself

 

Tracy Chapmantracy

This list would not be complete without Tracey Chapman. Her androgynous voice is deeply soothing and her lyrics are powerfully emotional. Her song “Fast Car” is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century in my opinion. Her album titled “Tracy Chapman” from 1988 is great listening for a long car ride while you stare out of the window.

 

This article could have been a lot longer so if you made it this far and are still looking for more, here are some honourable mentions that I didn’t have time to write about: Frankie Cosmos (indie-rock), dodie (sad girl bangers), Tove Lo (pop/electronic), Hayley Kiyoko (pop), Shura (pop).

Girl Talk reviews : Apple TV’s Dickinson

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant-” wrote Emily Dickinson, in one of the almost 2,000 poems, scribbled on scraps of paper, that were found in her bedroom upon her death. Born in the 1830s in Amherst, Massachusetts, it is said that in the last years of her life, she would rarely leave her room, and always dressed in white. She’s one of my favourite poets ever, if not the favourite, and so I greeted the news of Apple TV’s retelling of her life with some apprehension.

In those 4 walls of her bedroom, held in silence like a fly in amber and secluded from the hustle of revivalist 19th century New England, Emily Dickinson managed to crystallise the deepest range of human emotions – where it always seemed that she’d reached enlightenment and been cut off at the last minute by a dash. Apple TV, if their recent offering The Morning Show (streaming to mostly bad reviews) is anything to go by, are not characterised by subtlety.

Single words, earmarked by dashes, exclamation points – Emily Dickinson’s poetry channeled the telegraph decades before it was invented. “Some of the strangest, most fascinating poems ever written”, opens Apple TV’s Dickinson. This respect for its subject and her output reassured me at once, and it really does provide the emotional core to this dreamy and feverish retelling of what Dickinson’s life could have been.

To keep this spoiler free, I’ll just focus on the first episode. Hailee Steinfeld (of “Most Girls” fame) plays the titular poet,  while her complicated and strict father, Edward Dickinson, is played by an excellent if sometimes wooden Toby Huss. The opening scene sees Emily wake up, lights a candle and write, visibly shaken and twitching with inspiration, breathing heavily. It reminded me of Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria remake, when the young girls are possessed by a witch’s spirit as they dance. Dancing is erotic and euphoric in Suspiria and so is writing in Dickinson – her sublimated emotions and anxieties poured forth into poets like “Wild nights – Wild nights!”, allegedly about her sister-in-law, Susan, here played by the sweet-faced Ella Hunt.

Dickinson (which has met with largely positive reviews) is a sprawling, ambitious take on a complicated figure. It’s certainly not what people expected – modern, funky, made for social media.  Emily says “bullshit” within the first five minures. Vaguely old-timey and quite beautiful graphics and drawings adorn the title sequences of each episode, while bass-heavy backing tracks punctuate scene changes, including A$AP Rocky and Skepta’s Praise The Lord . The dialogue is halfway between general period drama formality and a 2000s teen movie. “What up sis,” says Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) as he rides up to tell her he’s marrying her best friend and (in the show and probably in real life) secret lover. “Nothing bro, just chilling,” she replies, lackadaisical – it really is a show carried by its visuals and storyline, rather than dialogue.

But striking imagery was crucial to Dickinson’s poems too – just look at one of her most famous lines, “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me –/The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality.” Each episode is named after a poem, and it is this poem that the show opens with. Lines of Emily’s poems appear as she composes them, embossed in gold on tree trunks and water buckets.

It’s really a show about the power of escapism. Every night, Emily retreats inside her mind to drive around with Death (an excellently relaxed Wiz Khalifa) in a red velvet dress. In life, Dickinson wrote with feverish imagination, probing deep at death, repression and trauma, all the while ensconced in staid respectability. In Dickinson, Emily is powerful, supremely confident in her status as a misfit. Her poems here are not published anonymously – whereas real-life Dickinson was said to be afraid of being published, obsessed over mysterious men (writing a series of letters addressed to a mysterious “master”) but never finding real love. We’re so used to this idea of a life experienced through the mind, through letters, being “less than”. But in Dickison, Emily is young, and has not yet become a recluse.  As the show takes pains to stress, whatever life Emily built for herself, it was the one she wanted.

Many criticised the show online and on Instagram comment sections for the liberties it seemed to be taking with the truth. Emily didn’t run wild in orchards, or kiss women, or smoke opium, or even want her poems published! Films like Terrence Davies’ 2016 biopic, A Quiet Passion, portray Dickinson in a more expected light, a quiet, terrified woman, unprepared for the real world. But as Rachel Handler explored in a wonderful article for Vulture, it is really not so clear that Emily actually was such a homebody. Madeleine Olnek’s 2018 film Wild Nights With Emily turns that assumption on its head and showed Dickinson as a fun, queer (perhaps a lesbian), exciting and ramshackle woman. Apple Tv’s Dickinson does similar things; it teases out what’s already in the source material – a loud passion for life, for nature, a life deeply felt and experienced.

Her relationship with Susan is explored beautifully and is truly one of the shows’ greatest strengths. Meet me in the orchard, Emily asks in a letter dropped down in a basket. It’s  a beautifully shot scene, and a visual pleasure to watch them watching each other, framed by red apples, one dressed in white and the other in black. You’re not sure if they’re just friends – until Emily asks “Sue” to promise her she’ll always love her more than her brother, and they kiss.

This relationship has been theorised on extensively by literary scholars, but largely discarded by the academy, especially during the years of the “Lavender Scare” of the mid 20th century.  Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart published a book in 1998 called Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, a compilation of Emily’s letters to Susan, undeniable expressions of romantic love. “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door, and under the Evergreens.”

Dickinson really marries well the nods to the poet’s extensive literary output, with excellent TV. A particular success is Emily in a blood-red dress, leaving behind the virginal white for her nightly carriage ride with death. Later on, as Billie Eilish plays, discussions of the afterlife – “publicity is not the same thing as immortality” – reference one of her most famous poems: “The Carriage held but just Ourselves – /And Immortality.” The scene is charged as Emily – literally – flirts with Death, and the whole show drips with vivacity and sex. There’s competition, romantic and physical, for Sue’s affections by Emily and her brother, against the backdrop of Susan’s sister’s funeral – their youth is inevitably tinged with loss and death. Even as we see the preparation of a bountiful feast, the audience is treated to a close up of a chicken being killed.

Again, anyone reading Dickinson’s poetry would notice her fascination with death (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –”) but there’s the sexy, flirtatious side to her isn’t fictional. She  once mailed Kate Scott Turner a poem alongside a pair of garters. Kate Scott Turner is believed by many to have had a brief fling with Dickinson. She ended up living an openly gay life in Europe and is in the only existing daguerrotype of Dickinson

It’s by no means a perfect show, of course. The dialogue is often awkward, and there’s a weird interplay between archaic and modern language: lots of “I shall” followed by “I’m pretty psyched about it”. It seems to be a point about age – the younger characters use slang, while the parents are stilted and formal. But it doesn’t quite work. There’s slightly too many slick gimmicks, it’s a bit too instagram-generation in its aesthetics – it needs more soul, something Dickinson’s poems never lacked.

The greatest value in Dickinson is the way it reminds us of the power of our own imagination to soothe and to fulfill us – something we should all keep in mind in the midst of Week 5. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know, write what you feel. Emily Dickinson may have lived out the end of her life in one room, but she travelled in her mind. Vivid emotions, despair and trauma run deep in Dickinson’s poems; “‘It was not Death, for I stood up” is a delicate meditation of what we are capable of surviving. But there is also a deep lust for life –  “I taste a liquor never brewed/From tankards scooped in pearl”.

The show as a result seems to be more about what Emily Dickinson’s life could have been, if it had been more fair. It’s an  assumption that in society as it is today, there is more to offer, to “fearless” women like Emily. She “dwells in Possibility”, as she wrote herself, and so does Apple TV’s Dickinson.

Podcasts by women and non-binary people you need to listen to

I love podcasts. I spend more time listening to them than I do my lecturers. Everyone has heard of ‘The Guilty Feminist’ but have you listened to these? Here are some top picks of podcasts run by women and non-binary people to spice up your walk to and from lectures this week.

  1. The Receipts Podcastreceipts

A podcast providing a space for women of colour speaking openly and honestly about relationships, friendships, and the issues they encounter in daily life. Have a listen to episode 71 for an interview with Cambridge graduates Ore and Chelsea (authors of Taking up Space). This is “unadulterated girl talk with no filter” and it’s a lot of fun.

2. Secret Dinosaur Cultdinosaur

Secret Dinosaur Cult is a podcast run by non binary comedians Sofie Hagen and Jodie Mitchell. This is a cult where you will be offered forgiveness for the worst things you have done, and Jodie and Sofie will tell you about when they’ve been terrible people. They explore their childhood trauma and abandonment issues through the medium of dinosaurs. This podcast will make you laugh, cry and you might learn a thing or two about dinosaurs too.

3. No Country for Young Womenno country

A podcast from the BBC about the experiences of young women of colour in the UK. Hosts Sadia Azmat and Monty Onanuga are joined by special guests to discuss topics such as culture, motherhood, racism, and sexuality.

4. Just Between Usbetween

Just Between Us is a comedy podcast hosted by Alison Raskine and Gaby Dunn. They take listener questions, bring on guests, and play hypothetical games such as “would you stay with this cheater?” and “Are you a terrible parent?” As well as the comedy, they also have some frank conversations about mental health and sexuality (Gaby is bisexual and non-monogamous and suffers from bipolar disorder and Alison has OCD).

5. Made of Humanhuman

Another one by Sofie Hagen. In this podcast, Sofie interviews guests and their gentle questioning tends to bring out intense and emotional conversation. Topics often include fat activism, feminism, and trauma. A particular favourite episode of mine is with Susan Calman, where the two of them talk about their struggles with depression, and Susan talks about her gender expression and going on Strictly Come Dancing as a lesbian.

6. Bad with Moneymoney

Another podcast by Just Between Us host Gaby Dunn. In Bad with Money, Gaby talks about the struggles of dealing with money as a millennial and talks to activists and financial experts. Her description of the show sums it up best:

“Feelings, finance, and the f*cking system. Comedian and New York Times best-selling author Gaby Dunn (aka America’s Deadbeat Sweetheart) unapologetically examines the intersection of finances and social justice. Every week, Gaby brings a queer, feminist, unabashedly radical point of view to conversations with journalists, politicians, activists, and fellow deadbeats.”

7.  Call Your Girlfriendgirlfriend

A show by long distance best friends Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. Topics include body hair, pronouns, activism, race, and disability. They believe in women connecting and speaking out against structural inequality.

“We are unapologetic feminists who support everyone’s right to autonomy over their own body. We believe that friendship—particularly among women and femme-identified people—is a defining, important, and powerful relationship, and that conversations among friends can be the source of incredible social and political power. Women sharing their experiences with each other is a potentially life-changing act. It’s also really fucking fun.”

8. Sex Power Moneysex

To go with her new book Sex Power Money, Sara Pascoe has released eight podcast episodes where she talks to people related to the sex industry to demystify it for the average listener. Topics include stripping, sex work and being a sugar baby. This podcast allows those that are so often talked about, to talk for themselves.

The Politics of Muting on Social Media

Is muting people rude, or is it the only way to healthily manage our social media personas?

In Cambridge’s fast-paced world, it can feel like people’s social media does nothing but sparkle. There’s been a lot written in Cambridge about imposter syndrome, to the extent that I’m almost tired of discussing it now – but it is true. Every day it feels like there’s another post about a play, or a society, or an academic achievement.

Sometimes, you just may not want to see those posts. You could unfollow them, but that would likely lead to highly fraught social situations – everyone takes offence at being unfollowed.

And that, my friends, is where muting comes in.

So what is it? I’m going to focus on Instagram here, not least because it’s interesting to consider what muting means in the context of other recent-ish innovations, like the Close Friends stories. You can choose to unfollow people on Facebook, but, honestly, who uses Facebook anymore? Instagram has taken the blue behemoth’s place as the internet’s diary, and it’s where I personally mute people, and where most people do. You press a button on their profile that makes their feed (their posts, their stories, or both) essentially disappear. No one knows they’ve been muted so, no hard feelings.

Why do we do it? Muting doesn’t happen for negative reasons alone. I’ve muted people because they post too much, or I flaked on a commitment and feel guilty when I see their posts. This is precisely why muting is interesting, psychologically. You can still love a person, but feel distanced from them, and not really want to see their content daily, or their 15 identical shots of dappled light hitting a river (guilty).

Muting people can be temporary, too, and temporary mutes can be motivated by jealousy. While I was still trying to sort out an internship mid-summer, I had to take some time out of seeing grad-scheme stories on people’s instagrams. It takes a while for me to mute someone, but not for everyone. One friend I asked for this column, joked, “I have a one strike rule…one dud post and they’re out”. Muting can be, then, a Mari Kondo-ing of your feed, if you feel your feed doesn’t spark the joy that Mark Zuckerberg intended it to.

It’s the same idea as Close Friends story – a way of exposing your truest and, sometimes, worst self. There you post a private side  to yourself, often of a confessional nature, featuring discussions about your sex life, ugly pictures, updates on mental health. It’s a side to you that you’re not necessarily comfortable exposing. Muting, however, is more often about keeping FOMO at bay, and controlling the amount and the quality of posts that stream our way. I think it’s born out of social media exhaustion – you know that feeling when you’ve scrolled a bit too long and you’re looking for something but you don’t know what? For me, it feels like eating something sweet for too long. It’s too many nice pictures – I get toothache from the saccharine smiles.

Do the different gradations of muting make a difference? What kind of relationship do you have with someone you only mute stories from, and not posts, or vice versa, or both?

Another friend, when asked, said it did make a difference. “Often I just mute stories. The main benefit for me is being able to keep the semblance of being on good terms with people at home (that I’ve drifted from), because actually unfollowing them would be too fractious”. Politeness often dictate that you can’t unfollow someone you have a fraught but civil relationship with, even if you’d rather not see their posts. To unfollow is tantamount to an official friendship end, and not everyone is ready for that.

What’s striking, then, is that these updates clearly go against what social media is allegedly about – keeping up with people. It’s a tacit understanding that we do want more private lives than our follower count may suggest. It’s funny – the internet can be characterised as some entity devoid of humanity, changing social norms, but I find it’s deeply run by unspoken codes of human interaction.

We’re moving towards a social media world where you can increasingly narrow your social circle, in apps built ostensibly for widening it to the entire world. There is a similar rationale behind private instagrams (‘finstas’ or ‘spams’). We’ve gone from anonymous chat rooms in the early 200s, to an emphasis everywhere on “curating” your online experience.

This all may seem microscopic in importance, but these apps do play a significant part in how we interact with each other in daily life, especially “millennials” and the generations below. Their effect on the etiquettes of managing human relationships are important to consider.

To conclude this ode to muting, it really does seem to allow us to manage relationships and our social media personas better in this digital age. Before Instagram and Facebook you could just drift apart and, I don’t know, not follow their MySpace anymore. But today’s internet is a far more constant onslaught of content. With friends from home, we may feel alienated from them, having changed so much at uni. Feeling cut off from people is painful, but we live in complex networks of friendships as the social animals we are. Unfollowing is a far more definite statement, when a silent, pacifying mute does the trick.

I read an article on i-D about close friends stories, that had a similar conclusion. One of the people spoken to said, “It gives me control over my digital self in a space where so much of me is exposed.” Letting go is great, but control (when it comes to social media) might be better.

‘MOODS and NOODS’ review: Exploring Millenial Nostalgia in Cambridge

By Atlanta Tsiaoukkas 

‘MOODS and NOODS’, an exhibition by PIN_COLLECTIVE, is at the new Motion Sickness gallery space, in the unlikely location of Lion Yard. The uninspiring streets of cafes and shops, in fact, makes the gallery space appear inviting to those who love anything millennial, with flashes of pink and a gaudy, cereal-topped waffle (EJ Montgomery) as the window display. The space is part of an ongoing project by Cambridge School of Art graduates, Arabella Hilfiker, Denise Kehoe and Eleanor Breeze to stimulate the currently quite dull art scene in Cambridge, allowing experimental, young artists to be celebrated in dedicated spaces. So far, this venture can be considered successful, as the ‘MOODS and NOODS’ exhibition has meant that, whilst many in Cambridge feel the need to get on a train to see new art, for a couple of weeks, it is only a short walk away. 

The exhibition clearly explored ‘millennialhood’, and if this concept can be defined by one feature it is nostalgia. News outlets regularly decry the younger generations for an ‘obsession’ with nostalgia, often with a further comment shaming us for missing the past when we have it so good now. With ‘MOODS and NOODS’, PIN_COLLECTIVE have fully embraced the millennial stereotype, with all artists touching on themes of nostalgia, whether it be paintings inspired by childhood cereals (EJ Montgomery), child-like collages (Lily Rankine), or a princess themed play tent (Holly Rose Jackson). However, unlike many artists who today work with nostalgia, the pieces fortunately did not feel trite, rather, there was a sense of pushing boundaries, exploring, perhaps, what is hidden behind young people’s love of nostalgia. In particular, this can be said of the larger-than-life paintings of cereal packaging, which, though taking such direct inspiration from advertising is relatively common in the art world at the moment, felt like an appropriate acknowledgement of a collective millennial childhood, tainted by excessively bright colours and capitalistic endeavours. 

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 14.36.35

There was also an underlying sense of anxiety, evoked by the pieces themselves and the experience in the gallery space. Much of the work, such as the the various sculptures, were scattered throughout the floorspace of the gallery, risking being knocked by passersby, immediately creating a nervousness amongst viewers, especially as, usually, artwork is kept at a reverential distance. Considering the familiar content of many of these pieces, it feels only right that we almost slip on plastic bags from the corner shop and trip over abandoned cardboard boxes, just as we did as children. Even more anxiety-provoking was a specific sculpture by Gwen Senhui Chen, in which the piece dripped a cement-like substance directly on the floor – as the sculpture dripped, the floorspace reduced (it was much harder getting out of the gallery than getting in). These physical choices complemented the work brilliantly, such as Holly Rose Jackson’s film (found within the princess tent), which was described by one viewer as ‘American Headspace’, referencing the manic yet calmingly repetitive and meditative voice over. The exhibition was full of contrasts between millennial colourful childhood and the stress-inducing world we live in now. 

The nostalgia of this exhibition is seemingly both joyful and distressed. The ethos of PIN is ‘our interests include…pretty colours…mocking you…mocking ourselves.’, and this very much comes through in their self-referential and nervous composition. This is definitely not just an exhibition exploring nostalgia, but one which explores corrupted nostalgia. The work reminds you of when your innocence was questioned – when you accidentally saw a porn ad whilst trying to watch a cartoon; when you realised that cereal boxes were colourful and exciting purely to make you ask your mum to buy it. 

If just to support two young collectives, one with the aim to make Cambridge a great city for art, you should go to this exhibition. You should also attend regardless of your loyalty to the art world – it is a thought-provoking, stimulating exhibition which will keep you thinking long after you’ve visited. 

17th October – 3rd November 2019 

15 Petty Cury, Lion Yard, Cambridge CB2 3NE 

11am – 4pm, Friday to Sunday. 5pm – 8pm Wednesday 

Header artwork by Corinne Seymour

On Work Habits

I’d thought for a while on what to start off my Girl Talk column with – a deep dive into the Caroline Calloway scandal is always tempting, of course. But, seeing my newsfeeds covered in posts about Mental Health Awareness Day, I felt compelled to write about something which everyone in this university talks about constantly, it seems: work.

It’s a funny word to use, for our constant succession of deadlines, readings and worksheets, and can lead to confusion. If I use it at home, with friends not at university at the moment, they’re puzzled, and say they thought we weren’t allowed at part-time job at Cambridge. Oh no, I reassure them, this isn’t something you can clock out of, at the end of the day- there’s always something else you could be doing, another book to read or more essays to do. Term has just started and I already feel like I’m behind, fielding emails, ramming a summer’s worth of dissertation reading into a few days, all the while nurturing the friendships that keep me going.

Anxiety has been a part of my life at least since the age of 16, and it has always been connected to my academic performance. Receiving an email from a supervisor can leave me terrified to open Hermes, and the way my heart beats right before my history supervisions could probably power the Industrial Revolution. Work and mental health in Cambridge are inextricable, and it’s an even more pernicious issue when counselling and mental health adjustments are underfunded and inaccessible.

Now, a few caveats. I don’t mean for one second to imply it’s a harder life to be in my cushy (but expensive! #cuttherent) Medwards accommodation reading about the early Japanese state than working a full time job for minimum wage. Also, plenty of people here may have a perfectly healthy relationship with their work. In which case: keep on reading and shake your head in despair.

I realise I am by no means the first person to say Cambridge’s approach to academic work is unhealthy. It feels like fairly common knowledge – we’ve all seen people pull constant all nighters, work after a night out, and the atmosphere in college during exam term is, well, very particular.

The supervision system, I think, actually makes this worse – we find ourselves in fairly intense academic relationships with adults who frequently have no tact or sense of emotional intelligence. Stories about supervisors making people cry are a dime a dozen. I also feel that issues of cultural capital come into play here: if you’re used to the supervision system because your school had a similar level of one-to-one attention, you may not be as intimidated by the prospect of asking for an extension, for help, or just saying ‘no’ for one week. This will then be compounded for people of colour and otherwise marginalised students who don’t see themselves in the academics they’re supervised by. As women, we’re socialised also to please others, to be ‘polite’ and ‘nice’ and ask for, rather than state, our needs.

Here’s what I want to say: if you struggle completing all your work and you feel like an imposter – you’re not alone! The feeling of being crept up on by work is felt by everyone around you, I can assure you. I scalded myself quite badly with boiling tea three weeks ago so the start of my time in Cambridge was marked by A&E visits and some reduced mobility – especially frustrating when the things you have to do are far away.

Second, you really, genuinely, do not have to do as much work as they say. A tip for humanities students: not every essay has to be done, so be smart and figure out what topics you can avoid revising. Without meaning to sound like an HSPS student, deadlines are social constructs. I handed in my first essay here 6 hours late, which very much set the tone for my academic career in general. I think I’ve handed in two essays on time in my time here, and it literally does not matter. Prioritise yourself, your way of working and your mental health.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what has really helped me is to think about self-care and leisure as deliberate acts. As Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light and Other Essays “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. It’s a beautiful phrase, as is all of Lorde’s writing. Of course, Lorde was writing as a black lesbian feminist in America, and her work is very much directed at the experience of black women. She expressed in her succinct prose something that’s at the heart of what I want to write about today. Caring for yourself in a world where mental health care has been slashed by cuts, where people wait for weeks for appointments at the University Counselling Service or the Disability Resource Centre, or never receive funding for private counselling their college offered them, and   creating spaces of care and community amongst your friends, in this space, does feel radical.

Basically, a message for everyone: you can take time for yourself. You’re not a productivity machine. Have little rebellions, and hold on to them when Week Five hits.

Solitude and bliss

This summer felt different from pretty much every summer I’ve had, mostly because I made the effort to spend time alone, and give myself space. Space to think, breathe and act. Not to paraphrase Virginia Woolf too much, but when you have that space for yourself, it turns out, the life epiphanies come thick and fast.

Summers are a tricky thing. At least for me, they’ve always been fraught with peaks and troughs of hope and disappointment – I’d start the summer willing this to be the year I return in September fitter, prettier, somehow cooler only to face the disappointment come late August that that’s not, in fact, how life works.

In comparison, summers as a child were almost violently joyful things. I lived in Spain until I was about 13, and the thing I most remember about my summers there are the colours. Blue, mainly, obviously. There’s something about that never-ending turquoise sky of mid-July when clouds seem an impossibility. But also the bleached white of long sleepy Augusts in Madrid, when everyone else who could had left the city. When we moved to a little village nestled in the Spanish sierra, my memories are coloured with the golden green and dark woods of the mountains. You’d wake up to the sound of a donkey braying, and there’d be nothing to do but swim and sunbathe.

That’s all fantastic when you’re 8 and anxiety hasn’t hit you like a ton of bricks yet, but once it does, I’ve always found too much solitude to be counterproductive. We still go back every summer since we moved to the UK, and I’ve spent a lot of my teenage summers simmering with stress over a vague sense of not doing things right. Not sure what things those were, but they were there and they were not being done right. Summers away from my Cambridge friends can be especially apprehensive, considering I’m surrounded by the loud presence of my 3 siblings, my parents, my maternal grandparents and whatever extended family wants to drop in that day.

So, I began to seek out quiet corners of my garden, or solitary walks under the shadow that the mountain range cast on the village once the sun began to set behind it. It sounds very basic, but for someone not used to consciously taking care of myself, those 20 minutes of yoga every morning began to be a little treasure. This also meant taking care of my body as a physical thing – sport! Exercise! A revelation! I stretched, I swam 20 laps a day, I downloaded a workout app. I’d always hated sports, but there’s an undeniable magic in scratching out time to Not Think. You feel the burn, the sweat, but your mind goes quiet. Maybe the #LiveLaughLove peddlers have a point.

Doing more activity meant I slept easier, and crucially, had more focus to sit down and read. I’d gone from reading voraciously, countless books every month, when I was 10, and then as academics hit hard during my teenage years, my reading had dwindled to a point where during my first year at Cambridge I read maybe one book all year. I read three just this summer, which was a big deal for me. These were a collection of Joan Didion essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the Stephen King-esque Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Didion’s lush, verbose descriptions of her native, nostalgia infused Southern California are exactly what you need when you’re feeling morose on a summer evening, in case you were wondering.

At the end of the summer, I took my first trip to the USA, where my father is from, to do dissertation research in Richmond, Virginia. I was still reeling from the end of year-long relationship the week before, and felt cast away, tense and afraid, knowing where my anxiety could take me in stressful situations alone. It felt like a revelation to realise that I could bring the healthy, solitary habits I’d developed over the summer with me anywhere. After one stressful day at the freezing air-conditioned archives, I took myself to see a free exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. I wandered around the 21st century art rooms – large rocks stuccoed to the wall, technicolour ribbons creeping from one wall the other, all meaning and form broken down- and planned the dinner I was going to have at a nearby Cuban restaurant. That was my first meal at a restaurant alone. It’s somehow taken me 21 years to realise there’s a real joy to be had in solitude, but I’m glad I got there.