Who and what do we take selfies for?

What’s really in a selfie?


The ascent of image-centric social media platforms such as Instagram have given rise to a fascinating phenomenon: selfie culture. The social and cultural ramifications of this are, as yet, unclear. Are we witnessing the dawn of a revolutionary new age in which women can openly proclaim their confidence and self love to the world? Or is this simply a socially acceptable manifestation of hyper vanity? Worse yet, does it prove that we are more image conscious and approval-hungry then ever? 

 The answers may lie in the question: who are we really taking these selfies for?


Are Selfies Feminist?

Instagram as a platform for self expression and representation

woman wearing bright pink lipstick and a shirt that reads "feminist" takes a selfie while making a peace sign
@carolinaronquilloluna via #thisiswhatafeministlookslike

Instagram can be a platform for proclaiming confidence in yourself and taking ownership of your own image. The rise of social media has handed a mic to the people in a way that has never before been seen. In years gone by you would have needed a printing press, or at very least someone else’s approval to publicise an image or your opinion. Now everyone with an internet connection can be both the artist and the muse, you hold the camera but you’re also the model and, surely, that is empowering. This ability to broadcast our thoughts and opinions, and yes, images of ourselves on our own terms could potentially be revolutionary in terms of self expression and representation.

As Emma Bracy points out in her article for Man Repeller, loving yourself  – including the way you look – in a world that insists on women’s self-depreciation can be a defiant act of rebellion. This is of particular importance for marginalised people, bodies of colour, queer bodies. Using selfies to represent our own image could have a hand in the diversification of what is considered beautiful, it can create a sense of community, of strength in numbers, of mutual inspiration. In a related article for Man Repeller, Bracy delves deeper into the meaning of selfies, exploring the selfie and Instagram as an opportunity to “proclaim self-love in public spheres”. It’s pointed out that prior to the selfie movement, women were encouraged to be overly modest and make a show of disparaging themselves, lest they look too confident. The prevailing ideal of women as being beautiful but inexplicably low in self-esteem is demonstrated in the sentiments of popular culture, in songs like One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful.’ 

Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1907
Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1907

This annoying double standard has often been alluded to in regard to women recognising and acknowledging their own beauty. An oft-quoted excerpt from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing comes to mind,

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”


Patriarchal norms dictate that a woman’s acknowledgment of her own beauty is intimidating, unattractive or repellent. Then it stands to reason: when we post a selfie, we are presenting a stiff middle finger to that familiar belittling echo in our minds that tells us we shouldn’t like the way we look.

Winnie Harlow posing nude for a selfie in a mirror
@winnieharlow owning her own self image

Glamour, citing a recent study from the University of Toronto, claim that regularly taking selfies can make the participant feel more attractive and well-liked that individuals who don’t take selfies. The habit, though often considered vain, can actually contribute to building a healthy level of self esteem. Although, it is unclear whether the actual act of selfie-taking is the root cause of the increased self confidence. It could be that people who already feel confident (and like the way they look) are simply more likely to take selfies in the first place. For people who already see themselves in a favourable light, posting selfies and receiving the gratification of likes and compliments fortifies that positive self image. Which, in turn, creates a positive cycle that contributes to a healthy self esteem.

Some psychologists have even suggested selfie taking could be more significant than simply learning to admire yourself, it could also be an act of self exploration. Self portraits have been a medium through which artists can explore and express themselves, using their own image as art. For instance, Frida Kahlo’s most celebrated paintings primarily deal with her own image which she uses to express the most significant aspects of her being and experiences, her injuries, her ethnic identity her politics. Of course your standard duck-face, peace-sign selfie isn’t very comparable to this, but it is possible to use selfies as a form of self expression and many people actually do. Being the subject of our own art is no new thing. Self portraits have existed in various forms for centuries, even millennia. Selfies could be the self portrait of the digital age.

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

In any case, selfie culture could provide women with an opportunity to show public support for other women. Gassing (boosting another’s ego, in this case posting compliments on others’ pictures) on social media could actually be a very real way that girls publicly support one another and tackle traditional mentalities about female competitiveness particularly in regard to looks. Gassing on social media may not seem like much but it is actually a mutually rewarding experience. It promotes positive emotions and a sense of camaraderie and togetherness, often with people you don’t even know.


But what about when we’re not being supportive?


As we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world. It’s not all girl power and gassing and mutual support. We might actually find ourselves rolling our eyes at others’ selfies rather than leaping to compliment them and inflate their self-esteem. Studies have shown that while we generally have a positive attitude towards our own selfies, we often view other people’s selfies in a decidedly more negative way. This phenomenon has been observed in both men and women. At the heart of this “selfie paradox” is selfie perception.

Participants in the aforementioned study were consistently shown to perceive their own selfies as ironic and authentic, while they almost always – about 90% of the time – considered others’ selfies superficial, self-presentational and narcissistic. (Interestingly, participants also regularly assumed that others were having more fun than they were while taking selfies.)

Kim Kardashian wearing activewear posing in a mirror selfie with protein shakes

This paradox is further explained by a simple psychological theory dating back to the early 1970s, as Leah Fessler illustrates in an article for Quartz: “the self-serving bias, an ego-based attribution. ‘We naturally try to explain our behavior in terms that flatter us and put us in a good light,’ says Sarah Diefenbach of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. ‘Self-presentational motivations may be associated with narcissism and regarded as less reputable, and therefore attributed to others rather than to oneself. For oneself, one prefers relations to be more reputable character traits such as self-irony or authenticity.'”

Indeed, this apparent double standard when it comes to selfies may also be partially responsible for the social phenomenon known as the “hate-follow.” That is the somewhat strange (but quite common) act of following someone whose online presence irritates you. Hate-following does the exact opposite of gassing, it contributes to a culture of shaming and breaking-down other people’s self esteem. This is certainly not doing feminism, ourselves or others any good.

And what about when we don’t get the approval that we

are craving from posting a selfie?


The negative impact that social media often has on our self esteem has been well documented. In an interview with The Huffington PostDr. Suzana Flores, author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects our Emotions, Relationships and Lives, explains “when someone interacts over social media for prolonged periods of time, inevitably they feel compelled to continue to check for updates. I call this the “Slot Machine Effect” in that when we receive a like or a comment to a post, or when we come across an interesting new post from someone else, we experience what psychologists refer to as intermittent reinforcement—sometimes we get “rewarded” with an interesting post, and sometimes we are not, but the rewards through external validation of our posts, cause us to remain digitally connected.”

 According to The Huffington Post, 51% of social media users report feeling more self conscious about their appearance. Flores further explains “research has also shown that Facebook users are becoming increasingly depressed from comparing themselves to their own profile. Meaning that if a person’s reality does not match the digital illusion they post on their profiles, emotionally, one may feel they are not living up to the “best” form of themselves.” Emotionally secure people don’t tend to struggle with such issues. However, a large portion of our population do suffer with at least some emotional insecurities and therefore most of us do suffer the consequences of social media’s negative effects.

There is a constant sense of self comparison on social media. Negative self comparison with others is made easy by social media’s format. Your popularity and the popularity of others, our public approval rating, is quantifiable in the number of likes we have. If a person posts a selfie and gets only a handful of likes, or no likes at all, it could be devastating to their self esteem. Especially when contextualised against instagram models and influencers whose selfies get thousands or even millions of likes. Or even non-famous but generally popular and good-looking people with a couple of hundred likes.  The increasing tendencies of social media users to base their sense of self worth on likes and comments surely cannot be healthy or sustainable.

Kylie Jenner wearing a swimsuit and sun hat posing on a yacht in a blue ocean

But the self comparison doesn’t stop there, not just in regard to selfies and the way we look, but equally in regard to “life envy.” We all get “life envy” from time to time, we start scrolling through someone else’s feed and wanting to be more like them, dress like them, go to fancy restaurants and on expensive holidays like them, be more successful like them, the list goes on. It happens to everyone. But we’re also guilty of doing it to others, setting out with the intention of making others envy us. We often find ourselves only posting selfies in which we think we look our best and in situations that make us look good, when we get a promotion, for example, or when we’re on an exotic holiday. But of course this isn’t our day-to-day reality. So what is it doing to our sense of self? Are we becoming more narcissistic? More eager to show how great and pretty and popular we are? Craving other people’s admiration and jealousy?

Are we, when all is said and done, becoming more insecure and ultimately more reliant on the approval of others? 


 It’s not all bad


There’s a glimmer of hope. Even blatant self promotion on social media can actually help us with our personal development. According to Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, “aspirational” selfies (those intended to present your “best self”) aren’t simply about gathering likes and garnering the approval of others. In addition to that, they also have an effective way of helping people to see a path towards behaviours and qualities they desire for themselves: “Posting high points in life increases confidence, empowerment, gratitude, and appreciation through mindfulness, and the ability to visualise desired outcomes.”


Final Answer: It’s Complicated.


Is this all in the name of self empowerment? Of feminism? Are selfies revolutionising the female/femme image? Or is this all just vanity masquerading as female empowerment? Are we simply seeking approval and acceptance? Are selfies just a socially acceptable way for us to present a curated, “best” version of ourselves, submitted for the envy and admiration of others? Or, worse still, another vehicle for the ubiquitous male gaze? 

The answer is probably a bit of all of those things. And totally dependent on circumstance and intention. Yes, selfies can be about self-empowerment but they can also make us feel a lot worse about ourselves (as can the over all effect of social media).

It seems we’ve come full circle. At the beginning I asked “who are we really taking these selfies for?” The answer to the question, then, boils down to the individual: who and what are we really taking the pictures for? And, perhaps most crucially, how does it all make you feel? If it makes you feel good, then it’s got to be good, if not – you’ve got your answer.

What do you think of selfies? Do you take them? Have

your say in the comments section below.


*Images are not my own. All images have been sourced from instagram and/or have been credited. No copyright infringement intended.

The problem with ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Visually sumptuous but historically ludicrous, Josie Rourke’s attempt at a feminist re-telling of this 16th Century game of thrones ultimately falls foul of the same old tropes that plague historical storytelling.

Cards on the table: I am a historian. So perhaps it’s not quite fair for me to critique this film which is clearly not entirely based in fact. It’s hard to stay completely true to the historical material and create a film that is entertaining to a modern audience. I know that. And, as Suzanna Lipscombe has pointed out, the some of the film’s most exciting and surprising plot points: “the strange attempt by Elizabeth to marry Mary to Robert Dudley; the marriage between Mary and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who really was a drunken bisexual, found in bed with musician David Rizzio; the spectacular assassinations,” are all true. There are even some moments of historical tenability that are remarkably under explored, Elizabeth I’s smallpox attack, for instance. But part of the problem with Mary Queen of Scots was that its inaccuracies didn’t actually make it any spicier. Mary’s Scottish accent in the film added nothing and doesn’t make much sense as she had spent most of her life in France and therefore, if anything, would have had a French accent. It could be conceded that she would have often spoken in her native Scots whilst back in Scotland, are we therefore to suspend our disbelief and pretend that they are speaking Scots? It’s hard to say.

 The more pressing historical discrepancy would have to be the meeting between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), which never actually happened. Though, the film does make an excuse for itself by stating that the meeting was secret and therefore not on the historical record. A bit of a cop out but a decent defence. I just can’t help but feel that Hollywood can do better. The Tudor (and Stuart) period is such a juicy slice of time in British history. In fact, it’s often the case that the facts are just as – if not more – interesting than the dramatisation. It’s already risqué, brimming with sex, murder and intrigue. This period can read as an old-timey, pseudo-intellectual version of a HELLO!

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BREAKING: King Henry sends fifth wife to the chopping block

Revealed: did Queen Mary REALLY kill her own husband?

Their aptitude for scandal almost makes it too easy. But just because you can turn the Tudors and Stuarts into caricatures resembling C-list celebrities in tacky magazines doesn’t mean you should. And that’s where Mary Queen of Scots starts to go wrong. The accent and the fictional meeting are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problematic representation of history here. Rourke’s adaptation is not the enlightened intellectual thriller that it claims to be. Rather, it becomes a gaudy tale of female rivalry more akin to a soap opera than a revisionist re-telling of a nuanced and intricate chapter in history.

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I with a defiant gaze pose for the film poster with the caption 'BOW TO NO ONE'

BOW TO NO ONE boom the film’s promotional posters and yet there is no such rebellion, there is no such departure from your run of the mill bodice-ripper. We’ve seen a strong Elizabeth before, we’ve seen a strong Mary before. Most notably in Cate Blanchett’s performance as the former in Elizabeth (1998) and in Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of the latter in Mary of Scotland (1936). At least since the 30’s we’ve seen the feminist agenda played out via a fiery, independent Queen Mary asserting her authority over her chauvinist inferiors: “I’m going to live my own life, do as I say!” Less surprising was the similarly proud outburst in the 90’s in Elizabeth, “I will have one mistress here! And no master!” – an actual quote from the real Elizabeth I. Clearly, attention to the proto-feminist potential of both queens is no new thing. So what is this 2018 version actually bringing to the table?

There is a notable – somewhat successful – attempt to interrogate the sexist limitations that were consistently pushed on both women. Ronan and Robbie each do a good job of conveying the frustrations born of being a 16th century political dichotomy: monarch and woman. The audience is often confronted with the historical reality that Tudor men did not much care for bowing to a woman’s will, queen or not. As Lord Randolph (Adrian Lester) illustrates in a hushed aside: “How did the world come to this? Wise men servicing the whims of women?” This concept is furthered, brilliantly, by David Tenant’s venom-spitting fanatical John Knox who declares: “We have a scourge upon our land. Tis a woman with a crown,” and later leading his congregation in Scotland in a chant, denouncing their queen as a “whore.”

close up of Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots confronting Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie)

The overriding tragedy in Mary Queen of Scots is that Elizabeth cannot hold out against her scores of male advisers who seem hellbent on poisoning her mind against her cousin and fellow queen. Mary and Elizabeth write letters to each other throughout the film, with Mary insisting that they “rule side by side in harmony. Not through a treaty drafted by men lesser than ourselves.” Elizabeth responds in like: “let our nations cherish each other, as we would. Two kingdoms united.” And later Mary implores Elizabeth, “Do not play into their hands…I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you.” It is clear that the film advocates for a united front, presenting a heartfelt plea for female unity, very much in keeping with the Me Too age. This appeal to modern feminism and 21st century sensibilities is surely one of the film’s gifts.

In their final showdown, however, Elizabeth tells Mary “your gifts will be your downfall.” This heavy foreshadowing of Mary’s fate becomes an unfortunate metaphor for the film’s feminist allegory. For all the initial pleasantries and comradeship between the two queens, the message ultimately falls flat. Not just because Elizabeth eventually betrays their bond of female loyalty, more due to the film’s unoriginal focus on a personal competition between them. Far from presenting an intelligent biopic worthy of history’s most formidable queens, it belittles their complex relationship to a petty rivalry over “who’s prettier? Who’s married? Who has a baby? Who’s a better woman?” Which must ultimately leave us with the question: can we not do better than this? This reductionist, constantly replayed obsession with personal enmity? There is no credible historical record of this supposed interpersonal bitterness. Therefore there is no basis for Mary Queen of Scots to boil down “the arcane details of centuries-old diplomacy to a personal beef between two massive celebrities.” Can we please move past this fictitious 16th century catfight?

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots in iconic white makeup and red wig

True, both queens are presented as talented and intelligent, but much of that goes to waste. The film is too invested in Mary’s romantic drama, but its most unforgivable crime is its disservice to Elizabeth. It reduces one of the most consequential women in English history to a snivelling mess with little to do other than survive a nasty bout of smallpox, run hysterically into Dudley’s arms and wonder what she’d look like pregnant. Robbie, a very capable actor by all accounts, is not handed a version of Elizabeth that she can get her teeth into. That said, Robbie brings a humanity and sense of human vulnerability to the role. And there is an interesting dimension in which she can explore the difficulties Elizabeth faced, being a non-traditional queen- unlike Mary she is unmarried and childless (and constantly berated by her advisers for it). But the film implies that Elizabeth refuses to marry in part due to a fear of being discovered barren and/or feeling more like a man than a woman. There isn’t much historical evidence to back either of these ideas, save for Bram Stroker’s bizarre theory that Elizabeth was in fact a man. Had the equally interesting (in my humble opinion) historical reality been explored, that being that Elizabeth used her eligible status to her political advantage, her character would have been much stronger and more in keeping with the film’s feminist overtones.

Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots being undressed and gossiping with her ladies in waiting

Mary Queen of Scots’ insistence on the all-encompassing benevolence of the titular character is a big part of the problem. It is understandable that Rourke and writer Beau Willimon wished to present a multi-dimensional, sympathetic version of Mary as opposed to the one-note villain she has previously been portrayed as. Mary Stuart was seemingly very worthy of praise for a number of reasons. It is true, for example, that Mary (a Catholic) was happy to let her subjects “live as they list“, worshipping as they saw fit. She seems to have been cosmopolitan and notably tolerant for the standards of her time. But in Mary Queen of Scots her understanding nature and generosity apparently know no bounds. She tells David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz-Cordova) her gay and gender-nonconforming secretary/best friend when he expresses his comfort in wearing women’s clothing “Be whomever you wish with us.” An unlikely sentiment for a 16th century Catholic queen but not absolutely impossible. When Rizzio betrays her by sleeping with her new husband – on their wedding night, no less – she’s as serene as the Virgin Mother, immediately forgives and consoles him, “You have not betrayed your nature.” Now, that pushes past the point of credulity.

Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots socialising with David Rizzio and ladies in waiting with her dog in front of an open fire

More importantly, from a historical perspective, the film never acknowledges the very real possibility that Mary did plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The root cause of the divide between Mary and Elizabeth is never adequately addressed in the film; like so many political and military clashes at the time, it was religious rather than personal in nature. Mary, a Catholic with a claim to the English throne was favoured by Catholics across Europe who aimed to depose Elizabeth. The English queen’s Protestant ministers on the other hand, feared and distrusted Mary due to her being a legitimate threat. This reality may have trumped any supposed bond they had.

It’s unlikely that either wanted the other dead from the get-go but circumstance and personal preservation seemed to push them both into a position they would rather not have been in. As history has taught us time and time again, queens rarely have the same choices women do. In their attempts to keep Mary from playing the villain, Rourke and Willimon have created not only a martyr but a totally unbelievable feminist superhero, bereft of the failings and complexities of human nature.

Mary could have come across as a much stronger, not to mention more believable and interesting, character if her moral ambiguity were explored. In the latter period of her life, a time marked by imprisonment (and a likely growing resentment for the cousin who put her there), she simply appears as a victim of Elizabeth’s mistrust. The idea that that mistrust may have been justified never comes into the picture. Bear in mind, Mary was a queen in her own right who, as is pointed out in the film, believed herself to be Elizabeth’s superior and the rightful heir to the English throne. Surely, then, she could not simply submit and allow herself to be humiliated and imprisoned by her so-called inferior when freedom and dominion over Scotland and England were within her grasp? Would an audience really blame her for attempting to reassert her position as queen? Evidently, it doesn’t matter. Rourke and Willimon aren’t so interested in the political or religious realities of Mary’s world as they are in the supposed gender-based conflicts of her life.

Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots having her hair dressed by Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan)

There is much standing between what the film wants to be and what it actually is. It tries so hard to score woke points with its feminist overture, LGBT characters and marked inclusion of actors of colour. It does succeed in bringing traditionally overlooked groups into the foreground. But ultimately it fails on both counts to deliver on an exploration of any of the historical realities facing these marginalised groups, in regard to both gender and race.

The decision to cast people of colour in roles as courtiers in 16th Century England and Scotland in Mary Queen of Scots was largely praised. But still, predictably, attracted criticism from some historical purists and – let’s face it – white supremacists. Rourke’s decision was an understandable one, she made it clear that colourblind casting a period drama was important to her, due to her feeling that black and other people of colour being left out of such portrayals and films was an injustice: “I was really clear, I would not direct an all-white period drama. Adrian, who plays, Lord Randolph, grew up 40 miles from the birthplace of William Shakespeare; he is one of our eminent Shakespearean actors. I needed to cast an ambassador who could move between the two courts and help this make sense. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t cast him.”

As Trey Williams has pointed out for the TheWrap “There were people of colour in England during that time. According to the UK national archives, Elizabeth would have employed black servants and musicians, and even had a black chambermaid, though seeing a person of color as high up as Lord Randolph would have been improbable. Rourke said, however, that she didn’t see any reason that these actors couldn’t play these prominent roles in Mary Queen of Scots.”

Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph in Mary Queen of Scots at Mary's court in Scotland

Though there is a clear attempt on Rourke’s part to portray a more enlightened period drama, it inadvertently does almost the opposite, smoothing away the ugly realities of history. Most people were not woke in 16th century England and Scotland. By portraying colourblind courts, the historical context is ignored and the actuality of limitations and prejudices placed on people of colour, particularly black people in Europe, is not addressed. English references to black people in literature of the early modern period were brief and stereotyped, “Africans were explicitly related to apes, defined by unruly sexuality, a lack of reason, violence, and ugliness.” Scotland and the rest of Europe generally followed a similar line of thought (with some notable exceptions and deviations). It is therefore historically irresponsible and a grossly excessive use of artistic license to pretend that European royals would have given people of colour even the semblance of power or influence.

 Perhaps Mary Queen of Scots is not the right film to address these issues. But casting actors of colour in historical dramas, playing roles such as Lord Randolph and Bess of Hardwick, people who stood at the pinnacle of Elizabethan society, may not be the right way to go about it. These positions, in reality, would have been exclusively reserved for the very white social elite of European countries. Colourblind casting is hardly revolutionary- white actors have been butchering roles that were meant for people of colour for decades. It is clear that film needs more diversity and, undoubtedly, period dramas are one of the worst genres in terms of offering opportunities to actors of colour. However, rather than addressing or solving any of these issues, this inversion merely points out the gaping hole in Hollywood, begging for historical dramas that are viewed from different perspectives and set in other cultures and continents. The roaring success of films such as Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians should stand as testament to that.

Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots dressed in an elaborate costume a red wig and white makeup

Still, there is a lot to like about the film. As previously mentioned, the film gives a good overview of many historic events. The costumes and sets are stunning, as is much of the performance given by Ronan and, less so, from Robbie, who did her best with a sub-par Elizabeth. But Mary Queen of Scots’ ultimate failure should have been its primary strength. It seeks to present Mary and Elizabeth through a third wave feminist lens but it just doesn’t turn out the way it seemingly was intended.

We want our films to represent our current philosophies, we want our heroes to be who we need them to be. But all too seldom does the past fit in with the wants and needs of the present. The film rides on a fantasy of doomed sisterhood that unfortunately was probably never there, nor in a pre-feminist world could we realistically expect it to be. That is not to say that there was not some affinity and mutual understanding between Mary and Elizabeth, or that they were not both strong, intelligent female rulers among a sea of powerful men.

But in truth it seems likely that they feared and respected one another in equal measure, and their allegiances lay elsewhere than within the bonds of feminine solidarity. We cannot expect or pretend that figures of history can live up to modern standards of liberalism. In order to be fair, we must accept them and examine them within the context of their own time. In shoehorning modern ideologies into an old story you lose the essence of truth that is required of good historical fiction. Mary Queen of Scots had the potential to be a great rather than just a good film. It overpromised and underdelivered. Ultimately, this failure to successfully present an updated, truly enlightened retelling of the story makes the film’s shortcomings all the more spectacular.

close up of Saoise Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots shooting a gun


What did you think of the film?

Have your say in the comments section below.


* Images are not my own. All images have been sourced from Mary Queen of Scots, 2018. Copyright: Universal Pictures and Focus Features. No copyright infringement intended



Lessons in Self Creation with Frida Kahlo

The second in the new “3 lessons in personal style” series will be Mexican artist and icon Carmen Magdalena Frida Kahlo y Calderón.

Frida Kahlo smoking with pre-Columbian statue
Frida Smoking, Gisèle Freund

Where to begin when discussing Frida Kahlo? Her’s is an image that we know so well. Her trademark dark braided hair decorated with bright flowers, her colourful blouses and long, flowing skirts, indigenous jewellery, her ribbons, her distinctive monobrow are all familiar to us. She herself even feels familiar. And everyone seems to want a piece of her.

She was well-known in life, but became iconic in death. Pop culture’s fixation on Frida commenced not long after she died, with the “second coming of Frida” beginning in 1983 with Hayden Herrera’s biography propelling her into the pop culture limelight. The 20th Century artist’s striking image has cast a long shadow over the fashion industry since then, with designers from Jean Paul Gaultier to Dolce & Gabbana taking inspiration from her, and Givenchy sending Frida-inspired dresses down the runway as late as 2010, 56 years after her death. 

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo with monkey
Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, 2002 Photographed by Annie Leibovitz

In 2002 Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Frida brought the artist to the big screen, right on queue. Only 2 years later a Pandora’s box of her personal belongings was opened and put on display at La Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán. Her popularity may have reached it’s apex last June as some of the most famous and significant pieces of her wardrobe were put on display at the V&A in London, shown outside of Mexico for the first time in the hit exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. Meanwhile, Designer Roland Mouret dedicated his Spring 2018 catwalk show to her and in March of the same year Mattel launched a Frida Barbie to mark International Women’s Day. There was even a Frida snapchat filter.

Yes, “Fridamania” is well and truly in the mainstream.

Frida Kahlo posing for full colour Vogue picture
Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print, 1938 Photo: © Nickolas Muray / Courtesy of The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art / The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

But isn’t all this appropriation and commodification, the Frida t-shirts, the Frida fridge magnets, the Frida vinyl bags and the plastic flower crowns, a distasteful encroachment on a woman who stood steadfastly against Capitalism? Is it not an insult to the very core of her identity? Maybe. But perhaps it does not have to be. 

Frida Kahlo holding up her shawl to catch the wind posing with large Mexican plant
Vogue, 1937

Jess Cartner-Morley, in an article for The Guardian, explores this idea. She quotes the curator of the V&A exhibition, Circe Henestrosa: “I’m not at all sure that fashion has glamourised or sanitised [Kahlo], I think she was incredibly glamorous and sophisticated already…Kahlo loved to shop for clothes, revelling in colour and fabric; she was always strikingly made up.” It is even said that she is “so intimately associated with the clothes she wore that staff at the Blue House in Mexico City, where her clothes are now displayed, have come to believe that the brocade skirts and embroidered shawls get heavier after dark, and to infer from this that her spirit comes back to possess them.”

Clothing and self-adornment were actually mediums through which Frida could express herself: her identity, her culture, her politics. She was very much, to quote the V&A, “making her self up.”If we treat her memory and her image with respect and understanding, if we take the time to learn about her life and the philosophy behind her look, if we don’t reduce her to a tacky t-shirt, a barbie doll or socks, then we can really learn a lot from her.

She used her aesthetic to take control of her own identity not just as a women but also as a painter, as a Mexican, as a bi-racial person, as a Marxist and as a person with disabilities. None of it was accidental. Every part of her image had a philosophy behind it. With this in mind, Frida Kahlo becomes all the more inspirational. She was truly original, truly inimitable but we can still learn from her some valuable lessons in self creation.


Here are 3 lessons in personal style from Frida Kahlo


1. Celebrate your roots

Roots painting by Frida Kahlo
Roots, 1943, Frida Kahlo

Frida was nothing if not a proud Mexican. While still at school she engaged deeply with Mexican culture, political activism and issues of social justice. Her school promoted the concept of indigenismo  “a new sense of Mexican identity that took pride in the country’s indigenous heritage and sought to rid itself of the colonial mindset of Europe as superior to Mexico.”

Her love for her country and her connection to its history and culture manifested in her appearance. Interestingly, Frida appeared to have this experimental, introspective approach to her clothing before she was even an artist. Photographs from her youth reveal that she was inventing her iconic self image from as a very young age. For example, in one family portrait of the Kahlo y Calderón family, Frida appears dressed in her father’s three-piece suit. Her defiant disregard for 20th Century gender expectation are not dissimilar those of another Weird Sisters style muse, Colette. But unlike her French novelist counterpart, men’s suits come early in her style evolution, to be replaced by traditional Mexican dress.

black and white family portrait of the Kahlo y Calderon family with Frida Kahlo far left dressed in men's three piece suit
Frida Kahlo (far left) in a family portrait, c. 1924

 By the 1920s Frida’s sisters and most young women in Mexico had their hair in the fashionable bobbed style and wore the contemporary waistless shifts. Meanwhile, Frida ignoring the trends of the time, was busy carving out a unique visual identity for herself with traditional long, centre-parted hair coiled up in ribbons and braids, and clothing inspired by her mother’s indigenous roots. In her early 20s, Frida started to wear a personalised version of traditional Tehuana dress: “full skirts, embroidered blouses and regal coiffure associated with a matriarchal society from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was a proud assertion of her ethnic and national identity.

Frida appeared to share her mother’s propensity for “dressing up” to reflect Mexico’s history and culture. Her husband Diego Rivera had been credited with encouraging her to wear traditional Mexican dress. However, images of  Frida’s family dressed in Oaxaca’s regional costume, and of her mother dressed as Adelita, a revolutionary heroine of Mexican lore, indicate that it was woven into her childhood, in her blood even.

Matilde Calderon dressed as Adelita
Frida Kahlo’s mother, Matilde Calderón y González Photographed circa 1897 by husband, Guillermo Kahlo
Frida Kahlo painting My Grandparents, My Parents and Me
Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents and Me, 1936

Frida represented the duality of her nature, mixing European and Mexican styles to reflect her own unique heritage. Her father was of German and possibly Jewish-Hungarian descent, while her mother was of  indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent. Her refusal even to remove her striking facial hair, her monobrow and moustache, speak to her commitment to authentically representing her heritage. She appears to have inherited her characteristic monobrow from her paternal grandmother and wore this family trait like a badge of honour. Likewise, she wore vintage clothing before vintage was concept, borrowing from her mother and grandmother. She used her own image to demonstrate her allegiance to her roots and particularly to her home, Mexico.

Frida’s devotion to her homeland is particularly evident in her jewellery. She liked to wear pieces from Pre-Columbian Mexico, historic pieces handcrafted by native Central Americans. For her, it was about more than simple aesthetics, it was representative of centuries of cultural tradition. It was a political statement. To be sure, it was not in keeping with the fashions of the time, in fact Frida was often said to be the butt of jokes when she went out in public boldly wearing her traditional Mexican dresses and her flamboyant jewellery. But her image, complete with an extravagant traditional Mexican hairstyle, was not intended to fall in line with the fashionistas. It was a message, a black-lash against cultural whitewashing and the intrusion of Capitalistic fashions from Gringolandia.

Frida Kahlo self portrait along the boarder line between
Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932 by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo self portrait with necklace
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with a necklace, 1933

The necklace Frida wears here is speculated to have been made from jade beads, excavated from a Mayan archaeological site in the late 1920s. It seems that she acquired these beads and made them into a necklace for herself. She literally wore her country’s history around her neck.

This notion is so poignant. Even if you are not of Mexican descent, you can still take  inspiration from this idea. If you can acquire something that has meaning to you, something that represents your history and culture, it could be a historical coin, some beads, a religious figurine, an antique trinket, semi-precious stones native to your country, even a piece of carved wood. Have it made into a necklace or, better yet, make it into a necklace yourself. Coin necklaces in particular are very popular currently, a way of inconspicuously wearing your country’s history proudly around your own neck. Frida teaches us to look back on our history whether it be Mexican, Nigerian, Korean, Scottish, Sri Lankan or any combination and celebrate it in our image.

Frida Kahlo seated in photograph with pink flowers in her hair and a bright pink shawl
Frida Kahlo, c.1940, by Nickolas Muray


2. Wear what you believe in

Frida had been an avowed Marxist since her schooldays. She had even formed a group that put on plays, debated philosophy and discussed the Russian classics known as the Cachuchas (“the titled caps”), many of whom would go on to be some of the leading figures of the Mexican intellectual elite. Her ideology was woven into the very fibre of her being. She even claimed that the year she was born was the first year of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 (rather than 1907), so that she could claim to be a “daughter of the Revolution”. She joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 and was introduced to a circle of political activists and artists, including the exiled Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella and the Italian proto-feminist photographer Tina Modotti. Her political ideologies were encouraged and reinforced by this group of intelligentsia and by her passionate relationship with Diego Rivera – a Communist to his core – whom she was introduced to at one of Tina Modotti’s parties 1928. She even hosted, and had a brief affair with, Leon Trotsky when he was seeking asylum in Mexico.

Mexican Nationalism and Socialism shaped Frida’s thinking. It was a hugely influential part of her life, which, as with every part of her identity, was revealed in her self image.

Frida Kahlo self portrait with red cap
Self portrait with Red Cap by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo), c.1925 by Frida Kahlo

Side note: Acknowledging’s Frida’s Communism makes the commercialisation of her image all the more bizarre. Last year Theresa May strangely thought it appropriate to wear a – pretty tasteless – plastic chunky bracelet that featured Frida’s face on all sides. Ironic given that, to quote Ayoola Solarin in her article for Dazed, ” austerity has led to a worse standard of living for disabled people, ethnic minorities, and women in the UK, so how the Conservative PM could think that her fashion moment was a good move is indicative of how far Kahlo’s appropriation has gone.”

All the more reason to wear what is symbolic of your actual beliefs, as Frida did. Her left-wing ideologies are observable not just in the traditional anti-colonialist Mexican dresses, but also in the Cachuchas’ red berets and her more modern and more masculine outfits.

black and white photograph of Frida Kahlo wearing a sombrero with Diego Rivera
Frida wearing a sombrero (Unknown photographer)
the Zapatistas with Emiliano Zapata at the Library of Congress Washington DC
Emiliano Zapata (seated, centre) with staff, c. 1912. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Frida’s uncharacteristically plain and masculine outfit, complete with sombrero, is reminiscent of those worn by the Zapatistas, headed by Emiliano Zapata, one of the leading figures of the Mexican Revolution and now considered a national hero. Her commitment to socialism was also displayed in her adoption of non-Mexican articles of clothing such as the Russian headscarf

Frida Kahlo at Communist protest with fist raised
Frida Kahlo protesting whilst wearing a Russian-esque headscarf (Unknown photographer)
20th century Russian communist poster
20th Century Russian poster (unknown artist)

Nevertheless, as Historian Alejandro Rosas asserts, “Mexicanness, socialism, and even certain touches of the Mexican Revolution were not Frida’s greatest source of inspiration. The origins of her creativity can be traced back to 1925, when the bus she was traveling home on one day was hit by a streetcar. Her fractured body filled her life with pain until the end of her days.”

black and white photo of Frida Kahlo painting the two Fridas
Frida painting The Two Fridas, 1939, by Nickolas Muary


3. Become your own art

Frida was often the subject of her own art, about a third of her paintings are self portraits in part due to the vast amounts of time she was forced to spend in solitude recovering. She famously said:

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”


“I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.”


Themes of pain, of being injured, fractured, mutilated are often present in her work. She had suffered from Polio as a child, which had made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left. Then, at the age of 18, she was involved in a violent bus accident that killed several people. Frida’s own injuries were near fatal, her ribs were fractured, both her legs and her collarbone broken and she was impailed through the pelvis with a handrail. The accident destroyed her dream of becoming a doctor, her ability to have children and left her with lifelong pain and immobility.

Frida Kahlo the broken column painting
The Broken Column, 1944 by Frida Kahlo

Despite all this pain, her clothing, her art and her appearance served as creative mediums through which she could express the pain and overcome the challenges of living with disabilities. The traditional blouses she wore, the loose skirts and the elaborate hairstyles served to demonstrate her dedication to indigenismo, but also to cover what lay beneath. In an article for the New York Times, Hettie Judah discusses the dual purpose of Frida’s wardrobe with curator at the V&A Claire Wilcox: “The last thing you’d be thinking of when you saw her were her disabilities. The flamboyance was distracting.” The boxy shape of her traditional huipil blouses could drop loosely over a back brace or plaster cast, while her long flouncy skirts could disguise her wasted leg and their motion helped to hide her limp. Frida used her clothing and her self image to conquer her disabilities and physical imperfections; “she masters them, she supersedes them, she transcends them.” She even used a cast, something so uncomfortable and so restrictive, something that made it difficult to breathe, as a vehicle for self expression. She literally wore her political allegiances, the Communist hammer and sickle, on her heart.

Frida Kahlo wearing a corset hand painted decorated with communist hammer and sickle
Frida Kahlo wearing a cast decorated with a hammer and sickle, c.1941 by Florence Arquin


Ultimately, the greatest lesson we can take from Frida Kahlo’s iconic image is how transformative the power of self creation truly is. We can learn from Frida to not let allow ourselves to be defined by or dictated to by anyone but ourselves. Instead we must ask: How do I want the world to see me? What story do I want to tell?


Frida Kahlo inspired fashion for the 21st century


Embroidered Blouses

embroidered Mexican blouse from Puebla state V


Frida Kahlo self portrait
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait, 1929


The Mexican colonial style blouse (blusa or camisa in Spanish), inspired by the European chemise, is a staple of Frida’s wardrobe and perhaps the easiest way of paying homage to her through fashion. Beautiful, comfortable and very easy to wear in 2019. Due to their history, embroidered blouses are quite culturally ambiguous so you won’t look necessarily like you’re trying to wear a costume or imitate a certain culture.

white peasant blouse

M&Co., Petite Floral Embroidered Peasant Top, £13


Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 19.46.08

Shein, Floral Embroidered Blouse, £17.99


Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 19.19.47

M&Co., Floral Embroidered Peasant Blouse, £19.60
white embroidered peasant blouse

Shein, Flounce Sleeve Drawstring Knot Embroidered Blouse, £10.99


white cap sleeve

Shein, Frilled Neckline Puff Sleeve Fitted Top, £14.99


If you would like an authentic huipil blouse, you can find them online here. The blouses are ethically made, come in a range of colours and are hand embroidered in small villages throughout Central and Southern Mexico.

Alternatively, if you would like something totally unique, you can learn how to make your own; the V&A have published an article that explains how here. Having your own one-of-a-kind homemade blouse is very Frida.


The Velvet Dress

Frida Kahlo self portrait with velvet dress
Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926, Frida Kahlo

This wine coloured velvet dress is quite a rare look on Frida but it does showcase the diversity of her taste and the ways she liked to recreate and invent her own self image. The deep sensual red and provocative wrap style makes the dress as alluring now as it was in 1926.

dark red velvet maxi dress

Shein, High Split Velvet Wrap Dress, £22.99

If you’re looking for a more subtle nod to the dress in the painting, there is a similar dress available in black velvet at &Other Stories and a wine-red wrap mini dress available at ASOS.

black velvet maxi dress

&Other Stories, Velvet Midi Wrap Dress, £89

wine red mini wrap dress

ASOS, Wrap front tie waist dress, £11


Floor-length Skirts

Maxi skirts, another Frida staple, are also ubiquitous to most cultures and therefore easily adoptable to almost anyone for a comfortable and relaxed look.

Frida Kahlo painting Frida and Diego Rivera
Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo with cigarette and white dress 1929, Photographed by Guillermo Davila
Frida Kahlo with cigarette and white dress 1929, Photographed by Guillermo Davila
white tiered maxi skirt
Roman, White Tiered Maxi Skirt, £25
purple lace maxi skirt
Doorway to Fashion, Cotton & Lace Maxi Skirt, from £13

(available in over 10 colours)

OCHENTA, Bohemian Maxi Skirt, from £16

(available in over 15 colours)


Marxist Headware

If you’re inclined towards the Left…

bright red wool beret

&Other Stories, Wool Beret, £23

(Available in the classic Communist colour of choice: red. But also in mustard yellow, powder blue, cream and black)

&Other Stories, Lightweight Scarves, from £35

In case you are wondering, yes I am aware of the irony of using Capitalist means to recommend Communist-inspired clothing. There’s no excuse I suppose, but most of us have got to buy our clothes somewhere.


The Rebozo

Frida Kahlo folding her arms gently
Frida Kahlo, 1939, Photographed by Nickolas Murray

The Rebozo (or shawl) was often worn by Frida. Shawls such as these, again, are common across the world from India to Ireland. But, as explained by the V&A, they hold particular significance in Mexico, having “evolved during the colonial period to become a symbol of womanhood and — after Independence — nationhood. Nineteenth-century paintings and lithographs show Mexican women of all social classes wearing rebozos.”

Pashminas and other tasseled scarves look very similar but are perhaps a more culturally sensitive option that still references Mexico’s heritage and to Frida Kahlo with respect.

Amazon, Soft Pashmina, £9.99


The 3 lessons in personal style Frida Kahlo teaches us:


1. Celebrate your roots

2. Wear what you believe in

3. Become your own art


“I am nothing but a “small damned” part of a revolutionary movement. Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless”

– from The Diary of Frida Kahlo


She was certainly right about that. Frida Kahlo’s legacy, her very own revolutionary movement, may never die. Until it does, Viva la Revolución.



*Images are not my own. No copyright infringement intended

“The best men can be”, Gillette, Piers Morgan and the crisis of masculinity

Gillette’s short film Believe caused quite a stir. When I saw the commotion online, I hadn’t actually seen it yet. So I went to find out what was causing so much offence. To be frank, what I found was pretty underwhelming.

I was expecting something far more radical, to have caused so much fuss. What I found was a pretty reasonable assumption that there are some behaviours typical to the male gender that are in need of improvement. It didn’t suggest that men are intrinsically bad by any stretch of the imagination. 

The troubling behaviour that it brought attention to really shouldn’t have made any half decent person disagree with them, or so I thought. So what’s really going on? 

It shouldn’t be so difficult to acknowledge that the world and gender relations are not perfect. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, this is not mere opinion. This is fact. We live in a world in which female infanticide is staggeringly high in two of the world’s leading economies China and India. It’s not exactly a paradise of equality in the West either. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 2 women per week are killed by a partner or ex-partner, equating to roughly one murdered women every 2.6 days. An EU-wide survey conveyed similarly bleak results:

  • One in 10 women have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 15, while one in 20 has been raped
  • One in five women have experienced some form of stalking since the age of 15, with 5% having experienced it in the 12 months preceding the survey. 
  • However, three out of four stalking cases reported in the survey never come to the attention of the police
  • One in 10 women have been stalked by a previous partner
  • Of women in the survey who indicate they have been raped by their current partner, about one third (31%) say they have experienced six or more incidents of rape by their partner
  • Just over one in 10 women experienced some form of sexual violence by an adult before they were 15
  • Most violence is carried out by a current or former partner, with 22% of women in relationships reporting partner abuse

A similar situation can be observed in the US.  

This normalisation of male violence as demonstrated by the “boys will be boys” trope must be the underlying cause here. The comparatively smaller issues such as cat-calling and the like – as shown in the advert – are symptomatic of this blasé attitude to male culpability. I would hope that most men would attempt to distance themselves from these behaviours.  has proved that, even if it isn’t the reaction that feminists were hoping for. If you don’t identify or engage with the behaviours that are being criticised in the advertisement, then surely it doesn’t apply to you, you should actually like the advert? Surely you should agree? 

Evidently not. Piers Morgan, in an article for the Daily Mail, described the advert as an “absurd load of PC-crazed bilge” and asserted that “It’s basically saying that it’s wrong, and harmful, to be masculine, to be a man.” Is there any truth in this? Does he have a point? 

Let’s play Devil’s advocate for a moment. To be sure, there is a lot to unpack here. There are some potential issues, perhaps one could be cynical and view Gillette as attempting to commodify and capitalise on feminist sympathies. Putting said concerns aside, one may then ask: is there, as Piers Morgan has said, a war on men?

Just hear him out: is there a war on men?

Certainly the onset of third wave feminism has brought about some worry on the subject. In fairness, hashtags that promote anti-male sentiment such as  or  would not be tolerated from a liberal audience were the roles reversed. This is not equality, it’s misandry. That is not to say that women don’t experience threats of violence and trolling online. They actually get it all the time. The trouble with  and  is that it is mandated and even encouraged by people who claim to fight for equality. It is somewhat plausible that Gillette could be seen to be pandering to this extreme leftist ideology. Are Piers Morgan and co., therefore, projecting a different issue onto the Gillette advert? Is there a deeper issue that is informing the context of the Gillette debate?

man breaks up a fight between two young boys at a barbecue in Gilllette's Believe

Traditional Masculinity in Decline 

What do we mean by traditional masculinity? Morgan quotes David French: “‘The assault on traditional masculinity – while liberating to men who don’t fit traditional norms – is itself harmful to the millions of young men who seek to be physically and mentally tough, to rise to challenges, and demonstrate leadership under pressure. The assault on traditional masculinity is an assault on their very natures. Are boys disproportionately adventurous? Are they risk-takers? Do they feel a need to be strong? Do they often by default reject stereotypically ‘feminine’ characteristics? Yes, yes, yes and yes.’”

(Side note: I find this assertion that men are “disproportionately” more adventurous and risk-taking than their female counterparts particularly unconvincing. I have a twin brother and I would say I have always been the more “adventurous” of the two of us. I have travelled to the other side of the world on my own on more than one occasion and met plenty of other solo women (perhaps more than men) while I was there. Solo travel is arguably more “risky” for women than for men, but it doesn’t seem to stop us. Purely anecdotal, I know, but I felt irked by that assumption.) 

Despite all that, there are some fair points made here, that many young men aspire to be leaders and to physical and mental excellence (though, it should be pointed out, so do many women). There should not be an attack on or an attempt to eradicate all elements of masculinity. But it is the issues that come with traditional ideals of masculinity: harassment of women, bravado, cat-calling, female objectification, machismo, violence etc. that we really shouldn’t be sorry to see the back of. A distaste for the potentially harmful and aggressive aspects of what have come (perhaps wrongly) to be associated with manhood, may actually be a good thing for both men and women. After all, machismo and aggression is not equal to strength. These qualities could even represent a weakness of character, a fragile masculinity that needs protection and coddling and cannot withstand challenges or criticism.

Is it not an insult to men’s moral and intellectual agency that they should be debased to such a low standard? Men aren’t violent, mindless, reasonless brutes. Men aren’t inherently bad, so why should anyone be defending the right to act like it? Gillette disputes the idea that physical violence is natural to boys and men. The backlash to Believe, consequently, is somewhat confusing. Morgan accuses Gillette of branding all men “a bunch of uneducated, vile, sexist, harassing predators”. But it seems that he’s missing the mark; Gillette’s point was that this violence and this lack of respect for females isn’t in actuality what is natural, this isn’t what men are. The point is that men are better than that. 

Strength can be more than a simple show of brute force, exerting will over those too physically weak to stop you. It can mean strength of mind and strength of character, and sometimes strength of body used to defend those who need it. There are ways of embodying all that’s right with traditional values of manhood; courage, conviction, protectiveness, without taking it to a violent or oppressive extreme. There is room for both traditionally masculine and feminine traits, both are valuable, both are important, both should apply to both modern men and modern women. Traditionally feminine traits such as compassion do not have to be in conflict with masculinity.


row of middle aged men folding their arms whilst barbecuing in Gillette's Believe

Positive versus Negative Masculinity

You can take the good without the bad. Popular shows such as Brooklyn 99 and Sex Education are very different, but both present modern, healthy versions of positive masculinity. In Brooklyn 99, Sergeant Terry Jeffords – played by Terry Crews, whose testimony regarding his own sexual assault was used in Believe – is a prime example of positive masculinity. He is traditionally masculine in the sense that he is physically strong (Herculean even), he demonstrates leadership in times of crisis, is brave and successful. He also has a family, a wife and 3 daughters, who he loves and cares for dearly. He is sensitive and compassionate as well as being strong and confident, Terry never uses his physical magnitude to unjustly intimidate or control the people around him. He is fine balance of strength and softness. Like Brooklyn 99, Sex Education has been praised for its fresh take and nuanced representation of positive masculinity. Jackson is probably the most traditionally manly character on the show. He’s athletic, he’s man’s man, popular, funny but not possessive or aggressive. Like Terry, he only ever uses his strength and status to protect. He is also open and honest in his love life and conveys emotional vulnerability to facilitate a healthy relationship. Why should any of that be so difficult? Why should that be threatening?

Terry Crews giving his testimony

Terry Crews may be a hero to so many young men not least because he is physically astounding, undoubtedly, he is the real life embodiment of what can be and what is so wonderful about men. He is  a prime example of how feminism can be a force to uplift and empower men as well as women. He stood by other survivors of sexual assault, bravely told his story, knowing that sexism and ignorance could lose him fans and possibly a lot of respect.

Crews made a very important point about how physical strength often is not the most important factor regarding assault, it’s so much more than that, it’s about power. But I digress. Gillette’s clip of Crews saying “men need to hold other men accountable” is extremely significant in that it addresses the “us and them” mentality that surrounds the feminist debate. 

Emma Watson at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 2014
Watson at the UN Headquarters in 2014

HeForShe (and SheForHe)

Nearly 5 years ago Emma Watson gave a speech at the UN conveying the importance of feminism as a unifying force rather than a polarising issue for men and women – she received a backlash from feminists and non-feminists alike – this was disappointing particularly for the former. If nothing else, women attempting to possess and put an embargo on feminism is peevish. More than that, it’s not conducive to a health cooperative society. At worst, it could likely lead the gender equality movement to failure. Feminism should be for everyone, whether you like it or not. Feminism is for everyone. That is the only way it can put an end to the problems that affect people of all genders. Divisiveness and the alienation of would-be allies does nothing to help any of us. And, lest we forget, gay men, trans men, men of colour, men with mental health issues etc. are all men too, and can contribute to and benefit from feminist activism.While I understand and acknowledge the argument that the male angle on feminism can derail important conversations about women, I think feminism’s scope should be infinite. We should be able to have conversations about everyone, of all genders, races and orientations, in the context of feminism. Conversations about sexism and its effects on men does not have displace or replace conversations surrounding women’s issues. There is room for all.


“I have realised that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop”

– Emma Watson

On the other end of the spectrum, the problem with the men representing a form of toxic masculinity is that they are seeing feminism as the enemy, as a force that tears down men and raises up women, not to meet them but to take their place. To some extent, they are not entirely to blame for this ideology. When women fly the flag of feminism whilst hashtaging “kill all men”, you can see where they’d get the idea that equality isn’t the end game here. A matriarchy is. 

But that’s not what real feminism is, or at least should be. Emma Watson was right all those years ago to point out that we are not vying for dominance. We should be working together to make sure that the injustices that face us, and have faced our ancestors before us, are eradicated. So many men argue against feminism, citing statistics regarding the disproportionate numbers of male suicide and authorities that are in place to help and protect people not taking violence against men seriouslyIt is sexist attitudes like these that silence male victims of abuse and tell men they must be in control, especially in control of women. If they admit to being abused, particularly at the hands of a female partner it’s seen to be emasculating  and they are often ridiculed as weak or as not being a “real” man. It is sexist attitudes such as these that hurt men. These are the ideologies and misunderstandings that caused 50 Cent to mock Terry Crews for speaking out about his assault; the idea that to be assaulted, worse yet, to admit to being assaulted is shameful.

But feminism could be the answer to those problems if we all allowed it to work as it’s meant to for everyone. Feminism could be the antidote to the patriarchal societal values that tell us “boys don’t cry” and that “real men” don’t allow themselves to suffer abuse.  These institutionalised ideas are the root cause of the shocking statistics for male suicide, owing to the inability to voice emotions and the pressure to be “tough”, leading eventually to severe mental illness and death. 


model looks through mirror into the camera

Fragile Femininity?

Morgan asserts in his article that “If I made a commercial aimed at female customers predicated on the generalised notion that women are liars, cheats, psychopaths and murderers (such women exist: I’ve interviewed many of them for my Killer Women crime series) and so every woman has to be taught how not to be those things, all hell would break loose and rightly so.” 

In fairness to those who have found fault with Gillette’s short film, if the tables were turned and it was a women’s beauty/healthcare brand presenting an advert that criticised femininity, some women may have been up in arms in the same way many men have been. But wouldn’t that then be a form of fragile femininity? That would be representative of a fringe feminist group that immaturely denies any fault or possible flaws in females. We should all be able to take criticism. Having said that, equating an advert that claims that women are murderous psychopaths with the critique of toxic masculinity in Believe is a bit of a stretch. Murderers, whether they be male or female, are not common. Female murderers are statistically even less common. Morgan’s very own series alludes to this in its title Killer Women, suggesting that this combination is unusual or even shocking. Gillette has hardly accused men of being sadistic, murderous, bloodthirsty maniacs. Now that really would have been worthy of controversy. It merely shows common behaviours that are generally considered harmless like boys fighting and cat-calling. 

A more fair equation would be an advert that showed, for example, girls bullying other girls with cruel comments at school or at work. That would be a valid way of showing that girls can do better. Indeed, we can all do better and we should work against the negative stereotypes that concern our genders, rather than deny they exist.  for example does tackle that issue, encouraging and drawing attention to instances where girls and women are seen to support one another and raise each other up, rather than adhering to the traditional stereotype of women deliberately tearing one another down.


row of male friends sit on top of a mountain laughing and joking together

Men Supporting Men 

I thought Believe made some pretty fair points. The focus was not actually on women, it was primarily on men and what they can do to help one another. There was, of course, reference made to the negative impact of female objectification and harassment but the main focus was actually on men treating other men with more compassion. Not bullying other boys/men for being sensitive, calling them “sissy” and not accepting violent behaviour: “we don’t treat each other that way.” Allowing the old “boys will be boys” mentality to continue will impact badly on women, yes, but it may impact worse on men. As stated above, domestic violence in the form of male on female crime are statistically horrific (women are far more likely to be killed by a partner or family member) but men are actually far more likely to be killed by other men than women are: “Globally, 79 per cent of all homicide victims were male and 21 per cent female. The global average male homicide rate is, at 9.7 per 100,000, almost four times the global average female rate (2.7 per 100,000 females). Males lead homicide trends both as victims and as perpetrators.”

Traditional masculinity tends to hurt the men that believe in it most. An attack on traditional masculinity is not an attack on men, it is the opposite. Putting an end to this normalisation of male violence towards one another is beneficial first and foremost to men. 


“Until men stand up and say, “This harassment, this abuse, these assaults are wrong,” nothing will change. Men need to hold other men accountable.”

– Terry Crews


In any case, it cannot be argued that Believe is directly misandrist. It even says “we believe in the best in men” and shows a reel of examples of men exhibiting courage and strength, stepping in and stepping up to behaviour that they don’t deem acceptable. This is chivalry, is it not? This is the heroic ideal in its 21st century form.

Isn’t all this violence, all this hurt, the real war on men?

Perhaps the central question here is: what kind of man do you want to be? What makes a man a man? In these questions, perhaps, you will find your answer. 




* Images are not my own. All images used have been sourced from Gillette’s Believe, the United Nations and Unsplash. No copyright infringement intended.


Colette, the Original French It-Girl

First in the new “3 lessons in personal style” series, we’ll be taking a look at Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (better known simply as ‘Colette’).

Colette dressed as Cleopatra in Dream of Egypt

Keira Knightley’s dazzling performance as the proto-feminist fin-de-siècle author and performer Colette may spell a revived interest in her legendary personal style.

In Colette, we see the author’s novels, and particularly the mesmerising character of Claudine, take Paris by storm. Colette’s own life experiences did much to inspire her writing, so too, her formidable fashion sense influenced and inspired the women who read her novels. In the film there are mini Claudines seen dotted about Paris, all sporting a pseudo-demure school girl black dress with a white collar. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a few Claudines roaming the streets of Paris, London or New York today. A more likely source of inspiration, though, may be the dreamy country girl dresses of Colette’s youth, or the chic ensembles and masculine suits she favours in her Paris years.

Costume designer Andrea Flesch’s incredible attention to detail and commitment to period authenticity lends an air of grace to the production. Flesch points out that Colette’s style choices mirror her own personal evolution, but equally importantly, the shifting fashions and public thought in society at the turn of the century. “This period changed quite often; the shapes changed every two or three years…It was a very interesting time in fashion, the 1890s-1910s.” Colette, however, had her own style. “She was as free [with clothes] as she was in everything.”

Colette’s legacy still looms large over Hollywood and fashion houses today. The legendary Paris boutique Colette (which closed only in 2017), of course, was named for her. Colette can even be credited with discovering Givenchy star and eventual fellow fashion icon Audrey Hepburn, having cast the virtually unknown actress in a theatre adaptation of her novel Gigi in 1951. Colette, and Wash Westmoreland’s cinematic representation of her, can still offer some valuable lessons to us in the 21st Century in terms of using fashion as a vehicle for our own self expression and self realisation. As Lauren Cochrane points out in her article for The Guardian, “Style isn’t a footnote of Colette’s legacy, it’s a central part of it. Sixty-five years after her death, her influence extends beyond your bookshelf, Instagram captions and cinema: Colette’s free spirit is inspiring our wardrobes, too.”


Here are 3 lessons in personal style from Colette to live by


1. Priortise comfort and personal style over trends

Colette wears what makes her feel comfortable. She dislikes the garish red dress that Willy bought her and is uncomfortable in a corset. So she doesn’t wear it. The decision to not wear a corset is actually ideologically significant. The corset in 18th and 19th century Europe was not simply something to wear to make the waist look smaller and the breasts look bigger, but a complicated and often contradictory symbol of culture and society. It was representative of both the sexuality and sensuality of the female form but also of virginal obedience and patriarchal control of women’s bodies. Society closely associated a tightly-laced waist with a tightly controlled mind. Usually women and pubescent girls were simply not allowed to opt out of wearing the corset. Colette’s rejection of the corset therefore is not just a mere fashion choice, its a rebellion against society itself and its expectations of her as a woman. 

Clothing should be about enjoyment and expression of personal style. It should be about you, what you like, what you think and what represents who you are. If other people don’t like it – and Parisian high society certainly didn’t – who cares? The people who have confidence in their own style and what they like to wear don’t follow the trends, they set them.



2. Don’t be afraid to experiment 

Sticking to clothes or a look that make you feel like you, shouldn’t mean a wardrobe and style that never changes. Your personal style should evolve with you, it should represent who you are at that point in time, even on that day. We see Colette evolve in the film from a self-proclaimed country girl hailing from rural Burgundy, to elegant Parisienne de la mode. Her style reflects that personal transformation. Things you cling to as a personal signature don’t actually have to be permanent. At the beginning of the film, Colette has extraordinarily long hair, which she claims she would “never” cut. But when she does, she inadvertently creates a look that becomes iconic and flies in the face of traditional expectations of femininity.

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3. Fearlessly be yourself

Fashion and style should be an outward expression of who you are on the inside. The most immediately apparent manifestation of this for Colette is in her mixing of masculine and feminine. Her clothes come to represent her sexual identity. Colette could probably be identified as bisexual or pansexual in today’s terms. In the film we see three overlapping romantic and sexual relationships, with Willy, then Belle and finally with Missy. At first her style is quite traditionally feminine with soft light colours, flowing fabrics and frills aplenty. Later, as she starts to explore her attraction to women and engages in an affair with Belle, her clothing starts to reflect a more nuanced version of herself that encompasses both masculine and feminine traits. 

This was Flesch’s vision for Colette. As she tells Vogue; rather than adhering to the binding, rigid fashion of  her peers, Colette creates her own signature style made up of  simple blouses, cravats, cropped jackets. “I made my costumes simple and chic, but a little tomboyish…This balance of masculine and feminine was exactly my aim with the costumes.” Colette gets even more radical later in the film, flouting gender norms with Missy as a gender-defying influence and source of inspiration, she gets even more daring with her fashion choices and wears a man’s three-piece suit. Like Missy, she wanted to break the rules, she wanted to shock. Despite this, Colette remains steadfastly her own person.




 Colette-inspired fashion for the 21st Century


The Country Girl


Keira Knightley as Colette writing at desk

Keira Knightley as Colette and Dominic West as Willy walk in the woods together in Colette


woman lounging on red velvet sofa wearing a frilly white blouse

Sézane, Jules Blouse, (€105)

Almost identical to the lacy high-neck blouses Colette has, but still chic and wearable.

The Claudine Dress

Keira Knightley as Colette in mirror wearing Claudine dress

navy bodycon dress with white collar and cuffs
Boohoo, Contrast Collar and Cuff Dress, (£12)
black a-line dress with contrasting white collar and cuffs
Amazon Fashion, FuturaLondon Women’s Skater Dress, (£14.99)
This dress, thankfully, no longer is associated with a school uniform. It’s probably a bit more ‘Wednesday Adams’ than ‘Catholic school girl’ but the sleek style and monochrome palate hasn’t lost its appeal.

The Boater Hat

Keira Knightley as Colette standing in park looking into the camera wearing straw boater hat
model smiling at camera wearing straw boater hat

ASOS, natural straw easy boater, (£12)

forever 21 straw boater hat with black band

Forever 21, Contrast-Trim Straw Boater Hat, (£12)

A straw boater has a sense of timeless sophistication that a baseball cap just can’t give you.

The Sailor Dress

Audrey Hepburn as Gigi

navy sailor nautical dress
Yes Style, Short-sleeved Sailor Dress, (£13.61)
The nautical dress was made iconic by Audrey Hepburn’s Gigi. It’s almost too cute. Almost. If you want to make a more subtle reference to the sailor look, blouses like these could provide a nod to the nautical theme, tucked into jeans or a mini skirt.



Yes Style, Sailor Elbow-Sleeve Top, (£15.88)


White Shirts and Blouses (worn with a dark cravat)


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Yes style tie neck pleated blouse

Yes Style, Tie-Neck Pleated Blouse, (£14.37)
Sezane lady chiffon
Sézane, Lady shirt, (£90)



Shirt: Sézane, Pierre shirt (£80)

Black Necktie: Yes Style, Plain Ribbon Bow Tie (£4.72)

Blue Necktie: Yes Style, Ribbon Bow Tie (£5.25)

The contrasting monochrome colours are both simple and classic, feminine and masculine.



The Suit

Keira Knightley as Colette wearing men's three piece suit



Left, ASOS, Tailored Mix & Match Suit in Black, (from £45)

Right, Debenhams, The Collection – Grey pinstripe suit jacket (£24.50)

Wearing a suit in 2019 doesn’t have quite the same shock factor as it did in 1909 but it can still give you a sexy masculine edge.

grey herringbone blazer from &Other Stories


&Other Stories, Hourglass Herringbone Blazer, (£80)


Black women's suit trousers fro UNIQLO

UNIQLO, Women Satin Smart Ankle Length Trousers, (£24.90)

Incorporating individual tailored pieces such as a sharp blazer with jeans, or suit trousers with a casual T-shirt is an understated way of elevating an outfit.


Colette sitting on a chair in man's three piece suit smoking a cigarette

 Lessons in personal style we can learn from Colette


1. Prioritise comfort and personal style over trends

2. Don’t be afraid to experiment

3. Fearlessly be yourself

And a bonus: 4. “Don’t ever wear artistic jewelry; it wrecks a woman’s reputation.”


Even rule-breakers have rules.




*Images are not my own. All images were sourced from the websites mentioned or stills from Colette,  Lionsgate, 2018. No copyright infringement intended.

Dissecting Sexuality and Gender in Netflix’s Sex Education

Warning: Spoilers

So I finished watching Sex Education last night. I was late to the party but made up for it by binging all 8 episodes on Netflix in 2 days.

There was a lot to praise about the show. It could have so easily become a simple, trashy lame excuse for soft porn, but as it turns out, it achieved a lot more. Undeniably, and unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex. But Sex Education still managed to keep the fine balance between cute, funny and sexy.

Aimee sitting seductively on Adam's bed

An even more impressive feat was tackling issues like homophobia, transphobia, feminism, abortion and class without coming across preachy or pandering. To be sure, that’s a lot of wokeness to cover in 8 hours but the show is subtle in it’s treatment of the problems its characters face. Lessons in building healthy relationships and consent are succinctly woven in, often in simple one-liners such as “You can’t choose who you’re attracted to” and “No means no” that flow effortlessly into the story, never feeling condescending or jammed-in to make sure they covered their bases.

Sex Education also avoids many pit falls that most of its sexed-up teen comedy-drama predecessors fell foul of. The characters are largely free of tired stereotypes and are all granted demonstrable complexity. The whole Otis-Maeve-Jackson love triangle appeared at first to be following a familiar old trope. It goes like this: nerdy but sweet ‘deep’ guy (Otis), falls in love with beautiful, neurotic girl (Maeve), but she’s with the archetypal ‘jock’ popular kid (Jackson). This is something we’ve seen over and over and over again. But this time, Otis doesn’t get the girl in the end (not yet, at least) nor does he believe he is fundamentally entitled to her. Maeve isn’t the done-to-death manic pixie dream girl that serves as a cure to Otis’ problems, she’s a driven character with goals and problems of her own to overcome. Jackson too is a multi-dimensional, loveable and sympathetic character. You could easily be rooting for him just as much as you root for Otis; they are not simply pitted against each other, the good guy and the bad guy- the guy she should be with and the guy who’s got her. There are jealousies, mixed emotions and nuances. Everything doesn’t just revolve around Otis.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 19.13.57

Sex Education acknowledges and reflects the realities of love, sex and dating, using the “sex clinic” as a vehicle to explore the highs and lows young people experience as they reach sexual maturity. Unlike so many teen shows it reminds us that sex isn’t always…sexy. Sometimes you vomit while you’re giving a blowjob, sometimes you can’t ejaculate and sometimes you have to ask your partner to go and get your Mum. The show charmingly demonstrates that though sexual blunders are embarrassing, they’re normal, they happen to everyone and it is not the end of the world if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing.

The show also thankfully avoids stereotyping young men as singleminded, sex crazed creeps, and young women as judgemental, bitchy and sex averse. Lily, for one, point-blank propositions her male peers for sex. Maeve is a particularly indispensable character for a femme millennial audience. Not necessarily even likeable, definitely not soft or kind, she is unapologetic, pragmatic and smart. Her reaction to discovering that she is pregnant whilst at a house party is somewhat surprising, though very well-handled. There’s no crying, no hysterics. Maeve is a 17-year-old having to support herself whilst trying to achieve her potential at school, she is in no doubt as to what is the right decision for her. Equally, the abortion scene is sensitive without being sensational and totally medically accurate. It is not, however, dealt with heartlessly, the gravity of the situation and pre-op anxiety are palpable, but at the same time, it is not a scene wracked with shame or doubt.

Maeve is strong. She’s socially ostracised, relentlessly bullied and slut-shamed, nicknamed “cock biter” and though it’s clear that it hurts, she never comes across as a victim. She’s a fighter. She, frankly, has bigger fish to fry than making her classmates like her and she works hard to remain afloat under financial and academic pressure, whilst juggling a drug dealing brother, a new relationship and friendships. Maeve is the pivotal voice of the show’s overt feminist message. Her assertion of her own intellectual ability: “I’m really smart.” is imperative. She does not water it down. She does not say “I work really hard” or “I think I’m quite smart”, she knows she is smart and that she deserves the opportunity to reach her potential.

Maeve angrily facing up to heckler

The show also does a good job of representing a healthy attitude towards women and relationships in young men. Otis and Jackson represent the very antithesis of toxic and fragile masculinities. We often see Otis making the case for feminism. Particularly note-worthy is his exasperated outburst while Jackson is changing for swim practise “She’s not an object! You keep describing her as inanimate objects, but she is a person.” Otis points this out in a male locker room, symbolic of course of ‘locker room talk’ and it’s traditional function as an exclusively male space where women are discussed in often degrading terms. He further solidifies his role as an ally to women in his dealing with Liam and his romantic obsession with Lizzie. He is sympathetic to Liam’s unrequited attraction, “Sometimes the people we like don’t like us back, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But sympathy does not come at the expense of the woman’s right to say no; “I know it’s hard but if you’ve asked her and she’s said no, then I think you’ve got your answer.” This is significant in a world that so often encourages young men to ‘never give up, never stop trying to get the woman of your dreams.’ Teen rom-coms as a genre are particularly guilty of encouraging young men to persevere, to make the “grand gesture”, even when they’ve been refused on multiple occasions. Sex Education turns this Hollywood norm on its head, conveying how ludicrous it truly is in a valuable lesson about respect and consent. Notably, Otis’ defence of women is almost always when they’re not there to defend themselves.

Otis smiling whilst at school prom

The women of Sex Education are not damsels in distress, they are on the front lines, defending themselves. Maeve, for example, fends for herself in episode 1 when some moron keeps heckling her with objectifying banalities such as “Nice rack, Wiley” she proceeds to kick him in the groin. Jackson is there and as we find out he is attracted to Maeve and it is clear that he disapproves of his classmate’s harassing comments from his facial expression. He could play the hero, he could jump to her defence. But he doesn’t, he steps back and allows her to handle it herself. When she has left, he tells his peer that he deserves what he got. Remarkably, Jackson is never possessive or controlling towards Maeve, even when he suspects she has feelings for Otis. There is never a big show of aggressive testosterone-fuelled rage. There is never a “you’re my woman and I own you” moment. Jackson is in fact much more emotionally vulnerable than most romantic male leads. As Sophia Benoit points out, “the guys who are unsuccessful on the show have one thing in common: they’re deeply isolated and closed-off emotionally”. Adam is a prime example of this. His lack of confidence in himself, emotionally abusive father and inability to communicate his wants and needs effectively have transformed him into a bully. He becomes isolated and dejected, having seemingly no one to turn to, and takes out his frustrations on Eric. The message is clear: communication and openness is key to healthy relationships (whether sexual or otherwise).

Adam in abandoned bathroom looking dejected

Despite all this, the school is hardly a feminist utopia of gender equality and sex positivity. As aforementioned, there is bullying, harassment and plenty of slut-shaming. Most significant may be the revenge porn incident in episode 6. Popular mean girl Ruby is betrayed when a picture of her vagina is leaked to the whole school. It transpires that Ruby’s supposed best friend Olivia was intending to shame Ruby publicly as a punishment for her cruelty. This episode, however, is surprisingly significant – counterintuitively – in terms of providing examples of girls protecting other girls. In spite of Ruby’s appalling treatment of her, Maeve is determined to find out who leaked the explicit photo and to prevent Ruby’s public humiliation; “This kind of thing sticks. And it hurts, and no one deserves to be shamed, not even Ruby.” The salient point here is a valuable one. Even though you may not like someone personally, your fundamental values have to be the same. You have to be on their side in a case of injustice, Otis and Maeve acknowledge that everyone deserves the same rights to dignity and privacy whether they like them or not. Significant too is the potentially iconic “it’s my vagina” scene. When students start suspecting that the pornographic image is of Ruby, Olivia attempts to take the hit, she stands up in assembly and claims that the picture is of herself. There is then a Spartacus-esque example of solidarity, with most female students and Jackson standing up and proclaiming that the vagina in question is their’s.

Perhaps the most interesting character arch, though, is Eric’s. Again, on the surface it appears as if we are confronting another worn-out stereotype: the gay best friend (only this time, the male lead’s side-kick). But where rom-coms and chick-flicks have failed, Sex Education succeeds in dealing with gay men as actual multi-dimensional people, with real emotions and facing very real problems. Eric is a departure from Sex and the City’s Stanford and Mean Girls’ Damien. He encompasses everything that was right with those characters inasmuch he is hilarious, witty, and stylish. However, what is crucially different in Sex Education is that we actually witness some of the painful realities of growing up gay. The show also briefly touches on some trans issues, though, it should be noted that there are no trans characters featured. Eric and Otis both dress in women’s clothing and wear makeup for an outing on Eric’s birthday. One unfortunate situation leads to another, and Eric ends up walking home alone at night.

A violent experience ensues, in which Eric is verbally and physically abused and his assailants spit on and humiliate him. It is a chilling and all too realistic account of the dangers that face trans and queer people. The encounter sees Eric temporarily lose a part of his identity, his confidence is shattered, immediately after he abandons his outlandish neon outfits in favour of a muted khaki hoodie and loose jeans. He also loses his ability to brush off his peers’ cutting insults and punches Anwar, “the only other gay in school” in the face. This could be more poignant than simply giving a bully some payback for all the hurt he’s caused, it is perhaps a metaphor for Eric’s struggle with, and attack on his own queerness in the wake of his own assault.

Eric having an emotional conversation with his father whilst sitting in their car

Eric reasserts his sense of self in two unexpected places. First, he encounters a man trying to find his way to a wedding. This stranger wears a flamboyant patterned gold blazer, electric blue eyeshadow and “fierce” blue nail polish. The exchange seems to inspire a resurge of confidence in Eric and demonstrates an unapologetic form of black gay manhood, one in which a person express their identity as they choose. Later, Eric joins his family at church and there, perhaps most surprisingly, he regains his self. Organised religion is rarely a healing force in LGBT+ stories. It is seldom even explored other than as an obstacle representing fundamentalist and traditionalist values that usually serve to oppress and shame queer people. Here, however, is a refreshing reminder that things do not necessarily have to be that way. The church scene strips the Christian message back to its very core, what this means to Eric and maybe to all LGBT+ people could be momentous:

“Jesus loves! His love is greater than fear. His love is stronger than uncertainty. His love is deeper than hate. Jesus said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Yourself. Yourself. Love starts here. We must all learn to love ourselves before we truly love others. Who are you to not love yourself?”

The pastor embraces Eric, “You are welcome any time. This is your family.” Contrary to the painful, though oftentimes accurate, portrayal of religion as a primary source of self-loathing and oppression in a gay person’s life, Eric is not dismissed or disdained, he is uplifted. It may be true that this scene is more about community and Eric’s reconciling his identity as a gay black man, than it is about religion in essence. But it is a commendable effort in beginning to harmonise seemingly disparate aspects of identity, that many queer people from religious backgrounds can struggle with.

Race is actually one of the most under-explored concepts in Sex Education. However, relatable, finely-drawn characters such as Jackson, Ola and (principally) Eric may stand as testament to the show’s commitment to portraying underrepresented groups. There is, however, a particularly beautiful sequence that explores the immigrant experience in Britain. When Eric gets dressed up for the school dance in an unapologetically African, unapologetically gay outfit with glittering makeup, a colourful suit and a traditional West African Gele (head tie), it unclear how is his conservative Ghanian-Nigerian family will react. His appearance is met with cliff-hanging silence, which is then broken by his father: “Wait. I’ll drive you.” Eric’s father gives him a lift to the dance but appears to lose his nerve as Eric approaches the school. At this point, the oft alluded to rift between first and second generation immigrants is explored. It becomes clear that Eric’s father is a good man, his fear is informed by his own experiences and his own struggle to acclimatise to a new culture and country. He knows how much he had to change, to fit in and he fears for Eric. It is an honest fear, not a prejudiced homophobia, coming from a place of love and concern. He wants to protect his son from a world that he knows can be harsh on difference.

Eric in drag wearing leopard print dress, purple eyeshadow and yellow earrings

This is, no doubt, a very common fear amongst the parents of LGBT+ kids. No matter how accepting you may be of your child’s orientation, it can be difficult to shake the fear that they will be discriminated against, abused or worse. This fear is dealt with sympathetically, Eric’s father is given a chance to articulate his fears and his understandable urge to protect his son. But ultimately Eric is able to convey to his father that fear does not help him and suppressing the way he expresses his identity is not the answer. Eric tells his father “this is me.” He represents a generation of immigrants that refuse to change who they are to fit in. Eric clearly gets through to his father and a mutual respect and understanding is reached. “Maybe I am learning from my brave son.”

Indeed, there is a lot to be learned from this show. Sex Education is very much a product of its time. It speaks to and for a generation where feminism is mainstream, as is the call for sexual and racial diversity, representation and sex positivity. Ncuti Gatwa (Eric) affirms the show’s positive influence, telling The Sunday Times, “I’ve had so many DMs and messages from people saying that Eric has inspired them to be what they want to be. He presents masculinity in ways we’ve not seen before.” Emma Mackey (Maeve) concurs, “This show is quite revolutionary and political in its own right, and I think it could have a big effect on young women and men.” The show’s impact on its audience and on other film and television could be radical, it could even be revolutionary. Sex Education has set itself a high bar, it will be interesting to see where the show takes us next.



Sex Education is available to watch now on Netflix. Season 2 is set to be aired in Spring 2019

*Images are not my own. Copyright: Netflix, 2019


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