Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mars Attacks!

When Sam Tyler finally gets back home from his involuntary secondment to CID Mars to find the PC world of er… PCs in 2007 dull as dandruff, he willingly hurls himself back into the rough and tumble magic of 1973. This is a land where you can brazenly front a bird for a one night stand and just get a baffled, sympathetic look instead of a referral to a sex therapist and a tongue lashing about commitment-phobia. She wouldn’t do it of course, it was 1973. Well, it wasn’t quite like the 1973 I remember but maybe Spare Rib didn’t have a distribution deal in Manchester.

I would personally give anything to be back in the real 1973 where feminism was a strong baby girl with a bright future as opposed to now when it is an elderly, demented granny being abused in a care home and forgotten by her ungrateful offspring. Presently our ideology-starved nation is salivating over the fate of a real woman whose accidental tourism into the world of celebrity in the course of doing a job she loves and is good at and at which she risks her life every day for the safety and security of others has many of our fellow citizens demanding a public stoning. Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the one woman among the fifteen sailors and marines taken captive by Iranian guards was singled out by both the Iranians and the British for extraordinary media attention and then pilloried for it by those who trained the spotlight on her in the first place.

Kris has been all over this one ever since criticism first started to emerge about the response of the fifteen to their abduction. What did the public expect – that they’d steal a motorbike and jump fences all the way back to HMS Cornwall? The breathtaking ignorance of the general public and its media mouthpieces about the daily lives of men and women on active service has been thoroughly exposed by this episode. But even so, the morbid interest in Faye Turney should be, in 2007, a shock. As Kris points out, it is a very thin veil (sorry) over a very obvious agenda to ban women from combat. Polly Toynbee calmly sets about trying to chart the equality gap in her excellent piece for Comment is Free. She talks about the symbolism of Turney being forced to wear a hijab and the irony of The Daily Mail finding itself in agreement with President Ahmadinejad who wailed,

‘How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the west?’

Excuse me? If we’re so morally aligned with the Iranians, why are they the evil empire again? When you start throwing ad hoc value judgments into the ideological pot, you end up with an ethical stew. It’s all quite simple, really. The Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal to discriminate against a woman in employment so there is no question of banning woman from active service in the forces unless the act is repealed. If it’s all about risk assessment then who gets to grapple with the ethical questions it throws up like does a woman’s life have a different value than a man’s life? Does a mother’s life have a different value than a childless woman’s life? Does the age of a mother’s children come into it?

The argument is starting to sound a bit ridiculous but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Should women not risk their lives at all? Ever? Should women not become police officers, fire fighters or war correspondents? Should we not be allowed to sail around the world like Ellen McCarthy and what about that mountain climber who died a couple of years ago – she had children. Then there is the question of how we perceive heroism in women. Should our Charlotte Grays not smoke or be a bit fat or have three year olds? Is the only version of bravery we’ll accept from women the one where they overcome terrible injuries and then get married or get killed in action and be a friend of Prince William? I mean no disrespect to women whose lives have been tragically altered or taken, I merely suggest that to measure the rectitude of a woman using a yardstick borrowed from Pollyanna is a threat to the freedom and rights of all of us.

What’s been exposed by this episode, as Toynbee points out, is how little we have advanced as a culture in gaining true equality for women. It’s quite clear from the interviews Faye Turney gave to The Sun and a special edition of Tonight with Trevor McDonald that both she and her husband were labouring under the misapprehension that they are a normal, decent, functional British family bringing their daughter up to be ‘a very reliable, independent, strong young woman.’ Perhaps, like poor Sam Tyler, Turney had only imagined that feminism had happened. There have been few concessions to the arrival of women in any of the protective services. They have had to adapt themselves to uniforms, equipment and traditions designed to suit the needs of men and think themselves lucky if they get a separate toilet. And they have done it without a peep.

Faye Turney’s situation got a whole lot worse after the dithering Ministry of Defence turned a cock-up into a catastrophe by briefly opening a window allowing the fifteen to tell their stories for payment and then promptly shutting it again after she had done her interviews, adding yet another layer to her ‘otherness’. Through no fault of her own, Turney will become the only person to substantially profit from her experience and one of only two to be paid for their stories. Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian yesterday, was baffled by the MoD volte face, as am I. As he rightly observes, Turney was the epitome of dignity. How could the MoD have possibly thought her appearances had not provided them with ‘a satisfactory outcome’ as Defence Minister Des Browne complained? It prompts the question – what exactly were they expecting her story to be?

Unlike many of the female role models who have taken up residence in our peripheral vision via the media, Turney neither courted nor welcomed the public interest. Yet, it is there and has to be managed by someone. A Google search of her name reveals 1.34 million entries so far. Here we have another of those sticky situations where no one can really decide on the criteria for who should be allowed to manage their own explosion of limelight and who shouldn’t. That amount of interest is so huge it renders any discussion of whether her story should or should not have been told a complete nonsense. Since much of the attention has been negative, it would have been equally ridiculous to refuse her the right to present herself as she really is and far more damaging both to her reputation and that of her service.

All day radio and television stations have been calling up the families of soldiers killed in action and getting them to say that serving members of the forces should not be allowed to profit from their experiences. Sorry, I’m getting really confused here. Private Johnson Beharry, the first black soldier to win a Victoria Cross was given permission to write a book while still in the Army. Met Police Superintendent Ali Desai was allowed to publish a book. MPs are allowed to profit from divulging arguably privileged information while still in office. Where is that wriggly line to be drawn, exactly? If I had daughters, I would much prefer they hero-worshipped sea survival specialist Faye Turney than say Victoria Beckham, a woman whose only talent is the ability to suck both her stomach and cheeks in at the same time.

Life on Mars will soon morph into Ashes to Ashes where we will discover uber chauvinist Gene Hunt transferred to London in 1981 where he will enter a consciousness duel with mad/coma/time-travelling accident victim and single mum DCI Alex Drake fresh from the PC world of 2008. I wonder if she’ll wander into the Silver Moon Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pick up her copy of Spare Rib and check out the latest batch of Virago reissues or call the local women’s collective if she needs a plumber or electrician. I expect her to be listening to The Slits, The Raincoats, Pauline Murray’s Invisible Girls and Penetration and bemoaning the premature demise of X-Ray Spex. If not, I’ll want to know why not because that’s what the real 1981 looked like. And at some point I’d better hear the words ‘Oh bondage, up yours Guv’ coming out of her mouth or I won’t believe she was really there either.

Picture from


Reading the Signs said...

Me too, I want to go there (though it didn't really hang together, did it, the ending?) - my TV has started talking to me and I would be looking for a tall building to throw myself off only my village hasn't got any.

That's so pants said...

Hi Signs - I was afraid of that. The ending worked for me since we already knew there wasn't going to be a sequel.

Ms Baroque said...

spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler - you KNOW I was busy Tuesday night! I haven't SEEN it yet!

That's so pants said...

Ms B - I'm SO SORRY. It was all over the press yesterday.

Ms Baroque said...

Yeah, like I read the papers. Well, I've got a new set-top box now, so my remote works, so I've just caught up with the episode. I'll go read your post now and then no doubt comment again. Sorry if I sounded at all shrill..!

Ms Baroque said...

Hmm. Okay, I have now read your post. Interesting juxtaposition there, TSP.

I do recall reading an interview or something a few weeks ago about how fun it was recreating, for Life on Mars, this amazing time when you could do or say anything, etc etc... it struck me as suspect - what's really happening is that the producers are tapping into our disilliusionment with how regimented and restricted life has become - but they've either thrown away the baby with the bathwater, or they've tapped into another thing that isn't so innocent, which is the latent sexism/racism still lurking not too far from the surface of blokey society hereabouts.

For what it's worth, I liked the relationship Sam and Annie had, it seemed refreshingly free of all the gender-war crap. I can't say how a girl like Annie would have behaved, in the north of England, in 1973 - I was a kid and I was in the USA surrounded by people who were all trying to prove how hip they were - different milieu, I think! But I did like the way they interacted. Of course it was counterpointed to the other coppers.

And of course feminism happened! I remember it.

Then again, it's interesting how, by the end of Life on Mars, you weren't sure if he'd been dreaming the 2006 stuff all along.

kris said...


Thanks for what you have written. I have felt like the lone ranger in a sea of spite at times- but have met some fellow ex-military people and we're all saying the same thing.

I honestly am astounded by the sheer lack of gratitude displayed for the crew's service- and the way Faye Turney has been targetted.

I think I had my day in the 90s. It was all Gaytime TV, lesbian chic, Brit Pop and Art. That was the high water mark.

As we see, the tide's been out for some time and people like Faye and other women of all sexualities are being left high and dry.

That's so pants said...

I think there definitely has been an adjustment in society which many male writers are very happy to reflect. Clearly a lot of men thought the women's movement 'went too far'. I'd obviously strongly disagree with that one. Feminism isn't the only idealistic political movement to be trivialised and overpowered by the sophisticated self-serving model for the good life we have today.

The male perspective on what makes 1973 a more attractive time to live clearly drove Life on Mars. I'm looking forward to seeing how they'll handle a woman navigating the differences and what choices they'll have her make. Will SHE jump?

That's so pants said...

Hi Kris

Great to hear from you. I wanted to mention your contribution to this 'debate' because I know you were on top of it from the beginning. Yes - I think we are quite alone. I have been sent screaming from one or two discussions with my tail on fire, I can tell you.

The discussions have been very focused on whether or not service personnel should 'profit' from the telling of their stories. The point that I don't seem able to make without an angry mob torching my toosh is that it is ridiculous to be trying to make this kind of rule retrospectively. If Jeffrey Archer is allowed to profit from his 'story', why not Faye Turney or Arthur Batchelor?

In the case of Faye Turney, so much of her story was in the public domain it is a nonsense to suggest that her profile could have been any more public than it already was. Since she was so obviously misrepresented by the Iranian television footage, it would have been grossly unfair to refuse her the opportunity to present her own version of events.

Having seen the Trevor McDonald interview, I concluded it was very obvious that being gender-defined is not exactly an everyday occurrence for her. Perhaps the Navy is one of the last places left in the country where a woman can be herself. Her marriage looks like a model of equality to me so why, when we have shelves of equality legislation, is a marriage with what seems to be total parity, considered freakish?

kris said...


Exactly! I concluded it was very obvious that being gender-defined is not exactly an everyday occurrence for her. Perhaps the Navy is one of the last places left in the country where a woman can be herself.

Sometimes I miss it for that reason.

The press and the rabid, Rovian Conservatives are specifically targetting Faye for being a woman and what the hell is she doing out there anyway; and Arthur for being an obvious boy rather than "man".

And therein lies the rub- as far as the press and the rabid rovians are concerned, it's all about what it is/means to be a man.

Maybe we need some Dave Hill analysis on the matter!

That's so pants said...

Last time I looked Dave had his head up a chook's bum but you never know your luck.