The glossy revolution: ‘Cosmopolitan’ launches in the Middle East

Women are the same around the world – well, that’s what the publishers of the new Middle East ‘Cosmopolitan’ hope. The magazine is famous for its lipstick-and-sex-tips format, but Joan Smith argues that despite appearances, it has also been an enduring engine for social change

Independent, Thursday 24 March 2011

Over the past couple of months, a wave of popular protest has shaken the Middle East. Regimes have been overthrown, towns have been seized from dictators and repressive regimes have reacted with escalating violence. In the midst of such tumult, it might not seem the ideal moment to launch a Middle East edition of one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Western sexual freedom. But in an extraordinary accident of timing – and, presumably, with much holding of breath – Cosmopolitan will go on sale in half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries next month.

At first glance, it’s not easy to see the relevance of an American-based magazine full of fashion and sex tips on the streets of Manama or Riyadh. Some Western commentators have poured scorn on the idea, with The New York Observer recently dismissing Cosmopolitan as a “recycled sex-tip repository”. That hasn’t stopped the magazine’s publishers preparing to sell a new edition in Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Lebanon, as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Long before this year’s wave of revolts against corrupt and sclerotic dictatorships, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Cosmopolitan finding an audience in Beirut, where billboards advertising perfume and swimwear have co-existed for years with huge images of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah.

But it’s an under-statement to suggest that the Saudi authorities would find the British edition of Cosmopolitan a challenge. A recent cover offered “Explosive Sex Secrets!” and an interview with a transsexual who has the same name as Prince William’s fiancée.

Cosmopolitan’s publisher insists that the magazine’s format varies from country to country to take account of local sensibilities. But the cover of the Turkish edition looks like a clone of the parent magazine, featuring blondes in tight dresses, and you don’t need to be fluent in the language to guess the meaning of the word “SEKS” in screaming capitals. If the Middle East seems a potentially tricky market, especially in the light of unfolding events, it’s worth recording that Cosmopolitan has long been an international brand, launching its 61st edition in Mongolia last year. The deciding factor, I suspect, isn’t a mission to sell Western ideas about sex and fashion, but the publisher’s judgement that there’s a sufficiently large middle class with similar aspirations to women in Europe and the US.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that the issues which persuaded Western women to buy Cosmopolitan, Ms magazine and The Female Eunuch four decades ago are rising to the surface in the Middle East. Earlier this month, demonstrations to mark International Women’s Day were marred by violence in several countries. Women demanding gender equality and an end to sexual harassment were attacked in Tahrir Square by angry men who trampled their banners underfoot. “Not now,” they shouted, telling the women to go home. In Khartoum, riot police waded in and arrested more than 40 women minutes after they began a protest against discriminatory laws and sexual violence; according to witnesses, some of the women were beaten with sticks.

The demonstrations are a reminder of the huge numbers of women who’ve taken part in a wave of popular protest in Africa and the Middle East, but also of the deep divisions in the aspirations of men and women that exist not far below the surface. In Tunisia and Egypt, women formed common cause with male protesters when the aim was to get rid of tyrannical regimes, but in both countries fault lines have started to emerge. The women’s demonstration in Tahrir Square follows similar protests in Tunis, where women have complained that they aren’t properly represented in the new governments and fear the influence of Islamists on their secular country.

As women around the world have discovered to their cost, freedom means different things to different people. Gender is often the battleground as men who’ve thrown themselves into political revolutions turn out to be intensely conservative when it comes to the family and the role of women. In an ominous development, a CBS correspondent was attacked and suffered a brutal sexual assault in Tahrir Square last month, while local and foreign women who’ve been harassed by men in Egyptian cities won’t have been remotely surprised by the eruption of misogynist violence on International Women’s Day.

In some respects, the presence of women among the demonstrators who forced the resignation of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, is misleading; behind the scenes, most Egyptian women are still subjected to female genital mutilation – 91 per cent of 15 to 49-year-olds, according to a 2008 survey – and the government didn’t outlaw the practice until three years ago. And while a Western magazine based on the premise of total sexual freedom might have little to say to working-class women in poor districts of Middle Eastern cities, middle-class women are a different story. Indeed the sad thing, from a feminist point of view, is that Cosmopolitan’s brash present-day incarnation doesn’t have the seriousness and campaigning zeal of 40 years ago; it used to be feminist standard bearer, encouraging women to talk about taboo subjects such as abortion, but the current British edition reflects the celebrity-obsessed culture we’re all too familiar with. The small ads at the back offer cosmetic surgery and “live sex chat!” and the magazine is obsessed with fame: “I won’t let cancer stop me from interviewing celebrities,” was a choice recent headline.

Even so, Cosmopolitan’s assumption that sex is something women should be able to talk about without shame or embarrassment harks back to the early days of the magazine. The British edition has been around for 39 years, launching with phenomenal success in March 1972. The first issue sold out its print run of 350,000 in a single morning, and the following month saw sales of 450,000. Timing and content were perfect: the magazine spoke confidently to a generation of young women who weren’t quite sure what we wanted – I was one of them, eagerly waiting for the next issue – but knew we were nothing like our mothers’ generation. The contraceptive pill was just becoming available, abortion had been legalised and we were discovering the pleasures of sex without the ever-present fear of an unwanted pregnancy. The first editor, Joyce Hopkirk, was savvy enough to turn the magazine into a brand, inviting readers to identify with “that Cosmopolitan girl” in the launch issue. “You’re very interested in men, naturally, but think too much of yourself to live life entirely through him,” she assured them. “That means you’re going to make the most of yourself – your body, your face, your clothes, your hair, your job and your mind.”

Hopkirk’s credo was very much in line with that of Cosmopolitan’s American editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown, author of 1962′s Sex and the Single Girl. The magazine wasn’t shy about its role as “an agent for social change, encouraging women everywhere to go after what they want, whether it be in the boardroom or the bedroom”. In the early days, Cosmopolitan offered financial advice – this was a moment when British banks and building societies were reluctant to lend to single women – and astonishingly frank features on subjects such as oral sex; in January 1982, it boldly offered to “take the fear out of fellatio”. The magazine looked very different in those days, mixing high and popular culture in a way that’s almost unthinkable in our less confident age; in the Seventies, one issue would offer fiction by Cesare Pavese, another Jilly Cooper’s guide to men who would make good lovers.

Although it was ambivalent about some aspects of it, Cosmopolitan was very much a product of the sexual revolution. The baby boomers were coming of age in a period of economic optimism and social mobility, and we listened to exciting new feminist writers such as Germaine Greer who encouraged us to overthrow taboos about sexual behaviour and our bodies. Our mothers had lived in fear of getting a “reputation” or having an “illegitimate” baby, yet here were books and a hugely popular magazine telling us it was fine to enjoy sex outside marriage. But something else was happening at the same time, namely the rise of a new individualism which marked a significant break from the lives of previous generations. The transition from a society organised around patriarchal family units to one of individuals with their own aspirations is an essential step towards modernity. That’s what “Cosmo girls” were doing, even if we didn’t express ourselves in quite those terms.

Some of the magazine’s 21st-century critics would suggest that what was once its strength has become a liability. It’s certainly arguable that some of the liberating individualism of the Seventies has been replaced by self-indulgent obsessions, not least with cosmetic surgery and the cult of celebrity. But while today’s women’s magazines seem to feel the need to smuggle serious articles into their pages – a practice a friend describes as “stealth feminism” – I’ve read excellent features on female suicide bombers and “honour” crimes in the high-circulation women’s weekly Grazia. A recent British issue of Cosmopolitan looked at the subject of men who pay for sex, describing it as a form of exploitation.

If Cosmopolitan’s message is more mixed today than it was in the past, its arrival in the Middle East may raise fewer eyebrows than might be expected. These societies were in flux even before the popular uprisings of the past couple of months, and relations between men and women are changing along with everything else. In Bahrain last year I talked to middle-class women in smart business suits and poorer women who wear the hijab, a class divide that’s replicated in shopping areas all over the Middle East; street markets in Tripoli, a Sunni city in northern Lebanon, sell traditional Muslim clothing while Western-style malls in Beirut are stuffed with high-ticket designer items. A Lebanese friend was astonished to discover a sex shop in Cairo, and even more astonished when she went inside and found a fully-veiled shop assistant behind the counter.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the lifestyle featured in Western women’s magazines is unfamiliar to Middle Eastern women, or that they don’t discuss intimate subjects to do with sex with sometimes startling frankness. Across the region, young people especially are being pulled in different directions, invited to embrace Islamist ideas on the one hand and globalised consumer culture on the other. The French Islamic scholar Gilles Kepel writes about this struggle in his book Bad Moon Rising, recalling that he encountered boys with beards and veiled girls standing apart from students in branded jeans at a campus in Cairo. Later, in a giant shopping mall in Qatar, Kepel saw two women in niqabs halt in front of a display of cut-price Michael Jackson CDs.

“What is being played out here is not a war of civilisations,” Kepel remarks in Bad Moon Rising, “but rather an attempt to participate in a globally dominant one”. The fact that Cosmopolitan is moving into the Middle East, even on a small scale, is further evidence of that process. We’re all participants and observers of a global civilisation where individual aspiration – for consumer goods, democracy, affluence and sexual freedom – is increasingly difficult for autocratic regimes to resist.

Out of the gloom of disasters shine the heroes who give us all hope

Inspirational bravery proves that the human spirit can survive against the odds

Independent on Sunday, 20 March 2011

It’s still not clear how many technicians stayed behind after the tsunami to try to prevent a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. On Tuesday, 750 emergency workers were evacuated from the plant when radiation levels soared, leaving around 50 volunteers struggling to cool three crippled reactors. Helped by Japanese soldiers and helicopter pilots, they have braved terrible conditions in respirators and white full-body suits, quickly being hailed around the world as the Fukushima 50.

They face extraordinary hazards. Since the quake, five of their colleagues have died, 22 have been injured and two more are missing. On Friday, when the nuclear crisis at Fukushima was upgraded from level four to five, putting it on the same scale as Three Mile Island, it was clear that public anger towards the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which operates the plant, was tempered by admiration for the volunteers who were battling against the odds to bring the disaster under control. There were reports of technicians crawling through debris in darkness, guided by torches as they listened for further explosions of hydrogen gas. The daughter of one of the men told Japanese television that her father had been told he would “meet his fate” at the plant.

Dramatic pictures of wrecked machinery and plumes of smoke confirm the quiet heroism of the Fukushima 50. Their bravery is all the more impressive when you consider that they must have been conscious of the death toll following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986, when attempts to control the burning reactor had horrific consequences for emergency workers. Twenty-eight employees and fire-fighters died within three months, at least 19 of them from infections they were exposed to when large areas of their skin were burnt off by radiation. A further 106 developed radiation sickness, helicopter pilots who flew through the smoke to drop fire-extinguishing chemicals proving particularly vulnerable.

The Fukushima crisis is different from Chernobyl, where a faulty reactor design caused an explosion followed by an uncontrolled release of huge quantities of radiation for 10 days. So far, Japanese emergency workers have been exposed to lower but fluctuating levels of radiation, and Friday’s upgrading of the incident suggests that Tepco may have underestimated the risk to emergency workers in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. “You’re certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility,” an American technician who has worked at nuclear power plants told The New York Times, recalling the camaraderie that exists among people who perform dangerous jobs.

Heroism is an overused word in popular culture. Celebrities employ the concept with abandon – pop stars and models witlessly describe their mothers as “my hero” – while the tendency of the tabloid press to apply it to anyone in military uniform threatens to devalue the whole idea. “Our heroes” is a phrase used so often in stories about British troops serving in Afghanistan that it’s become something of a joke, creating a verbal deficit when a soldier dies trying to rescue an injured comrade or to defuse a roadside bomb. Genuine acts of heroism are inspirational, with the capacity to create empathy among strangers, as residents of the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett have demonstrated with their regular shows of respect for military casualties returning from Afghanistan.

We live in tumultuous times. The first three months of 2011 have seen earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, a Pacific tsunami followed by a nuclear crisis, and savage repression of popular uprisings in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. It’s hardly to be wondered at that we hunger for reminders of the selflessness of the human spirit. Disasters, wars and revolutions are a shocking reminder of the fragility of life. In an era of 24-hour news, it’s easy to feel like helpless spectators, even voyeurs of grief. That’s why we’re so affected by stories that show human beings rising above dreadful events.

No matter how bad conditions are at the Fukushima plant, the courage of the volunteers who’ve remained there has given Japan something to focus on in the midst of a still unfolding tragedy. While their attempts to get the situation under control appear to have been ineffectual, their willingness to risk their lives is a powerful rebuttal of the notion that human beings are motivated by nothing but self-interest. It’s an easy mistake to make, when celebrities have an apparently unbreakable hold on the media, forcing us to witness their infantile relationships and obsession with status. Few people these days read the historian Carlyle, who was fascinated by the idea of heroism and offered what used to be a much-quoted corrective. “Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity,” he observed.

It isn’t always the case that hardship brings out the best in people, but in every disaster there are always individuals who find reserves of courage they didn’t know they had. Certainly, the modern notion of heroism is a long way from that of the ancient Greeks, whose heroes strike a modern sensibility as thuggish automata; even Homer was repelled by the conduct of warrior-heroes such as Achilles, who dragged the corpse of Priam’s son Hector behind his chariot during the Trojan war. In epic poems and sagas, heroes tend to kill their enemies or be killed, and Lord Byron’s poetry is infused with longing for a mythic time when masculinity and violence were inextricably linked. Byron went off to Greece and became a hero of the country’s struggle for independence from the Turks, despite dying of malaria rather than wounds received in battle.

These days it isn’t necessary to be a man of action (or indeed a man) to be a hero, as the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi attests. The Burmese opposition leader was released to worldwide acclaim last year after spending the best part of 20 years under house arrest. Modern notions of heroism embrace endurance as well as spectacular single acts, and rightly acknowledge the importance of believing in a larger cause. At the beginning of this year, people around the world were transfixed by the spectacle of men and women pouring into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they called for the removal of a corrupt dictator. None of them was unaware of the torture routinely used in Hosni Mubarak’s prisons, and for days it seemed possible that the regime would respond with customary violence.

The feared bloodbath did not materialise, and events in Egypt and Tunisia encouraged demonstrators to take to the streets in other Arab countries. In Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, protesters have encountered greater resistance. Last week a Libyan doctor, Abdulmajid Ali, returned to his home in Scotland with a horrific account of what he had witnessed while treating victims of Colonel Gaddafi’s brutal attempt to hang on to power; in a mortuary in Al Bayda, Dr Ali saw the bodies of children shot in the head or chest by snipers. One encounter in particular, with an 18-year-old who had been shot in the thigh, stayed with him: “I told him his leg was not salvageable. He answered: ‘Dr Ali, if it meant Libya was free, I would be ready to sacrifice the other leg, too.’ It brought me to tears.”

It was anecdotes such as this, and moving interviews with Libyan men and women pleading for international protection, that finally brought about Thursday’s historic vote at the UN Security Council. At the same time, it has been impossible to watch the news without getting updates on the crisis at Fukushima or hearing about the dogged efforts of international search-and-rescue teams to find survivors in the quake rubble. Daily exposure to such levels of grief and fear would be intolerable, were it not for the fact that so many individuals have responded with conspicuous courage and fortitude. Modern heroism is quiet, anonymous, but no less inspirational for that.

“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” observed the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald. What we’ve seen in the past few days is the opposite: confronted with tragedy, ordinary people in half a dozen countries have quietly become heroes.

Childless and happy? I am, and so are many others

Independent on Sunday, 13 March 2011

Some people oppose fertility treatments on principle. They talk suspiciously about “designer babies” and “Frankenstein science”, or have religious objections to the idea of doctors manipulating human embryos.

No one on that side of the argument is going to welcome a new technique called “three-parent IVF”, which is designed to help couples affected by mitochondrial diseases to have healthy children. Last week, the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, asked the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to assess the controversial new treatment.

Mitochondria are present in every human cell and these couples risk producing children with serious and unpleasant conditions. The new treatment involves the transfer of human genetic material between two fertilised eggs, producing embryos which will have the nuclear DNA of their parents and the mitochondrial DNA of a donor; hence the “three-parent” tag. In fact, the amount of material from the donor would be very small, and as long as there aren’t unacceptable risks to the embryo, it’s hard to see why this form of treatment is more objectionable than other types of IVF.

What’s rarely addressed in these deliberations are the unproven assumptions that drive IVF and the thriving fertility industry, or the impact on the wider population. A new fertility treatment is invariably accompanied by interviews with childless couples who say they feel their lives are incomplete; it’s an argument that’s been accepted without question, and IVF has for some time been available on the NHS, even though it’s expensive and far from essential.

Not having children isn’t an illness in the usual sense, and it certainly isn’t a life-threatening condition, but fertility experts send women a hugely reactionary message. They encourage them to think they’re failures if they don’t have babies, implicitly dismissing any individual or couple who chooses to remain childless.

There’s a very basic mistake here. For centuries, the fact that most women who had sex got pregnant perpetuated the myth of a universal maternal instinct. I don’t have it and I know plenty of other women who don’t. Quite a few men, I suspect, would be happy not to have children, but couples come under huge pressure from family and friends to start procreating. What few people – especially fertility doctors, most of whom are male and have massive egos – seem to realise is that there’s no evidence for the assumption that having children makes people happy.

A commentary on the latest research highlights “the discrepancy between the widespread belief that children bring happiness and the fact that research finds either a negative or no significant relationship between parenthood and well-being”. People think children will make them happy, but a new study shows that for parents under the age of 30, the level of happiness decreases with the first and each additional child. Parents in the 30-39 age group are no happier than childless couples.

Like the existence of a universal maternal instinct, the idea that life is pointless without children is a myth. Some childless couples feel the absence keenly and I don’t have ethical objections if they opt to have IVF, but I’m not convinced that the NHS should pay for it. The idea of “designer babies” worries me less than the flawed rationale behind fertility treatment, not to mention the industry’s cavalier disregard of its role in adding more children to our overcrowded world.

Let’s talk about sex – to children

Independent, Thursday 10 March 2011

Some people have sex on the brain. I’m not offering this as a profound insight into human nature – I don’t do those on Thursdays – but it’s such an obvious statement of fact that I’m always surprised when someone fails to appreciate it.

Imagine a group of evangelical Christians, for example, who are so obsessed with homosexuality that they tried to bring a case under the unlamented Section 28. They’ve also opposed the right of gay couples to adopt, funded an evangelical registrar who didn’t want to process civil partnerships and paid for the defence of a couple who refused to allow a gay couple to stay in their guest house.

Now, if the very same people were to tell you that primary schoolchildren as young as five were about to be exposed to “shocking material” of a sexual nature, how would you react?

You might infer that these furious “family campaigners” have an agenda, possibly linked to a literal interpretation of Scripture that doesn’t have anything much to say about modern life. You might even applaud what appears to be an attempt to provide schoolchildren with unsensational information about sex in a form they can easily understand. If so, it’s a fair bet you don’t have connections with our old friends at the Christian Institute, who’ve come up with a “disturbing dossier” attacking several books which have been cleared for use in schools, including one called How Did I Begin? by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom.

Among the images in the book is a drawing of a couple in bed, accompanied by an explanation of how the man’s sperm enter the woman’s body. (OMG, you mean I wasn’t found under a gooseberry bush?)

I can imagine the image prompting giggles in the classroom but that’s largely because the cartoon couple is hidden by a hideous duvet cover; it’s a lot less explicit and certainly less erotic than images I’ve seen on MTV, fashion shoots and CD covers. We live in a culture where sex is used to sell any number of things, from perfume to cars to clothes, and these fantasy versions of sex don’t warn about the danger of infections, abuse and under-age pregnancy. So I’m delighted that sex education has been a compulsory component of the science education area of the national curriculum since 2008, while older children are taught about safer sex, contraception and how to resist being pressured into unwanted sex.

The evidence is that it’s working. After decades in which the UK had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates, the under-18 conception rate fell in 2009 to its lowest since the early 1980s. But there are still 38.3 conceptions per thousand girls aged 15 to 17 and most of these pregnancies are unwanted: almost half the girls under 18 went on to have a legal abortion, while three-fifths of the girls under 16 did the same.

We also know that it’s a class issue, with girls from a manual social background eight times more likely to have a teenage pregnancy than their peers from managerial and professional families; one of the UK’s most deprived areas, the north-east, has an under-age conception rate almost twice that in the east of England.

The last Labour government missed its target of halving the teenage pregnancy rate within a decade, but ministers had the guts to insist that sex education should be included in the national curriculum. I don’t expect to find favour with a bunch of homophobes and anti-abortion zealots who believe, among other things, that the Bible is “inerrant”. But I cling to the hope that it isn’t just me who recognises that evangelical Christians have weird, punitive attitudes to sex and shouldn’t be allowed any influence over sex education. Far from sexualising five-year-olds, these lessons provide the skills they are going to need to enjoy sex as young adults, without being damaged by ignorance, outside pressure or abuse.

Classics for all

Thursday 10 March 2010

I started learning Latin when I was 12 and loved it. I plunged into the intellectually thrilling world of the Roman republic, devouring the poems of Catullus and the speeches of Cicero. Later, at university, I read Tacitus, Juvenal, Virgil…..I can’t imagine a better training for a novelist and polemicist, and I can hardly believe how lucky I was to get started at a state school.

Most children from my background don’t have that opportunity any more, which is why I was thrilled to discover the Iris Project. Its aim is to take Latin and Greek into state schools and its website provides an impressive array of resources. Have a look at www.irismagazine.org and support the idea that Classics isn’t just for an elite.

Art for Gaga’s sake

Independent on Sunday, 6 March 2010

Didn’t you think she looked chilly? Stepping off a plane in Toronto on Friday, Lady Gaga wore sheer purple gloves, matching tights over black knickers and a leather top with open sides. But then she had to live up to the startling outfit she wore for dinner at Maxim’s restaurant in Paris the previous evening, when she appeared in a transparent leopard-print body stocking and heel-less boots.

Being Lady Gaga is hard work. She never appears out of character, which means that each public appearance has to be carefully calibrated. In an age of extremes, she and her team – the celebrated Haus of Gaga – have to go that much further, appropriating and subverting contemporary fashion. Those boots, which she was still wearing when she arrived in Toronto, are a brilliant example of Gaga’s wit: when millions of women are tottering around in painfully high stilettos, what does she do but make heels vanish altogether?

Lady Gaga has an intuitive grasp of how to flourish on her own terms in celebrity culture. Last week’s punishing schedule – flying to Paris after a concert in Michigan, making her catwalk debut for Thierry Mugler and then heading back to Toronto for another performance – produced an unbroken stream of images to coincide with her new single. It’s ensured huge interest in her new CD, due out in May, despite Gaga winning in only two of the six categories she was nominated for at last month’s Grammy awards. But it would be wrong to write her off as nothing more than the uber-celebrity of a shallow age.

In a charmless article last year, the cultural commentator Camille Paglia heaped praise on Madonna but chided Gaga for her sexually explicit displays, claiming that the singer ‘obsessively traffics in twisted sexual scenarios and solipsistic psychodramas’. She complained about Gaga’s lack of expression when she’s performing, failing to recognise that the singer deliberately refuses to expose herself emotionally in a way that’s become mandatory for celebrities; the clue (pretty obviously I’d have thought) is in the title of Gaga’s song Poker Face. Lady Gaga isn’t Cheryl Cole, exposing her feelings in interviews; she’s a superb performance artist invented by a former New York art student called Stefani Germinotta. Her adopted persona allows her to write songs and act out fantasies that draw on art, pop music, sci-fi movies and images of women in commercial pornography.

Madonna is an obvious influence, although Lady Gaga has a better voice. So is Andy Warhol, while her thesis when she attended New York University’s Tisch School of Arts was on Spencer Tunick and Damien Hirst. Personally, I’m not a fan of Hirst, but it’s impossible to understand Lady Gaga outside an artistic tradition which experiments with deliberate sensationalism and the human body’s susceptibility to objectification. Sometimes her videos have an unearthly beauty reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but there’s undeniably something disturbing about the way she incorporates images from slasher movies in her performances.

Gaga rarely explains, leaving it to the audience to decide what (if anything) it all means, although she did say this about the famous ‘meat’ dress she wore at the MTV video music awards: ‘If we don’t stand up for our rights soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones. And I am not a piece of meat’. This was variously interpreted as a feminist statement, a meditation on ageing or an attack on our attitudes to meat, while drawing fire from animal rights’ organisations.

But the consternation created by her costumes and performances is surely the whole point of Lady Gaga. Give that woman the Turner Prize.

The age of the muse may be over

Independent, Thursday 3 March 2011

Sometimes an obituary brings something into focus, not just about its subject’s life but about the era in which he or she lived. The middle decades of the 20th century already seem like another age, thrilling and contradictory as social attitudes changed yet some things continued to run on traditional lines. Two women who died in the past few days embody those contradictions, which surfaced in their obituaries and would, I suspect, have made at least one of them uncomfortable.

Susan Crosland, whom I knew slightly and liked, was a hugely successful American journalist who also wrote novels. Clever, charming and kind, she was described in headlines after her death last week as the “wife of Labour minister Tony Crosland”. Susan Crosland became her husband’s biographer after his sudden death in 1977, and their relationship was so central to her life that I don’t think she would have minded being described in terms of her second marriage. But I doubt very much whether her fellow American Suze Rotolo, who died a couple of days earlier, would have enjoyed being obituarised as “Bob Dylan’s girlfriend and the muse behind many of his greatest songs”.

The two women were from different generations – Crosland was 84 when she died, Rotolo 67 – and that may account for some of the differences between them. What’s striking is that they were both young adults in the 1960s, when the exhaustion of the Second World War was about to be swept away by a revolution in popular music and politics. Dylan later described his first meeting with Rotolo in 1961 in conventionally romantic terms: “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blood Italian.”

In fact, 17-year-old Rotolo was already much more than a pretty face. A native New Yorker whose parents were members of the American Communist Party, she was involved in the civil rights movement and took the unknown young folk singer from Minnesota to meetings of the Congress of Racial Equality. She politicised Dylan, and was photographed with him on the cover of his early LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. When she went to Italy without him, he wrote some of his best-known early songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.

Their relationship wasn’t all right, however, and according to Rotolo’s memoir it broke up because he wanted both a muse and someone to look after him. “Bob was charismatic: he was a beacon, a lighthouse,” she wrote. “He was also a black hole. He required committed back-up and protection I was unable to provide consistently, probably because I needed them myself.” Dylan had already met Joan Baez, with whom he had a short relationship, while Rotolo worked as an artist, never achieving anything like her ex-boyfriend’s fame but keeping up her political activities.

Susan Barnes, as she was known in her journalistic career, married Tony Crosland in 1964, around the time Rotolo was breaking up with Dylan. The wedding took place at Chelsea Register Office and the witnesses were Dora Gaitskell and Ruth Dalton, widows of a former Labour leader and Chancellor respectively. Susan Barnes was a much more glamorous figure than other Labour wives of the period and she managed to maintain a separate identity, retaining her own surname until after her husband’s death. But she nevertheless took on the role, according to one of her obituaries, of “his charming foil”.

From the standpoint of 2011, the Crosland marriage looks like a stage in the evolution of the political marriage, far from traditional but not yet the dual-career partnership shared by Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. But Suze Rotolo was definitely a woman ahead of her time, rejecting the supporting role that some of her contemporaries would have relished. Even in 1964, she seems to have realised that a man who needs a muse will probably expect her to do the washing-up as well.