Sylvanians taught me about the big society

Sylvanians

Yes, I’ve done it. I’ve actually found an excuse to write about Sylvanians

Happy Birthday, Sylvanians! A Guardian article alerted me to the fact that the famous toy brand is celebrating its 30th anniversary. So I wanted to write something about how great Sylvanians are. No, really.

Around twenty years ago I got my first Sylvanian, and I never looked back. I was getting a bit bored with Polly Pockets and Barbies. Mostly because I don’t like the idea of a one-sex nation, and there wasn’t really much I could do with the latter apart from make them go around on horses and chop off their hair. Even when Action Man and Ken joined the party, I found them a bit dry. I thought Barbie could do better.

But then one lovely Christmas, my parents bought me a Sylvanian boat. It was a wonderful barge that sailed along my bedroom floor, and came with a rat and some other indiscernible rodent creature.

Still, the barge wasn’t enough. And a few Christmases later I had a Sylvanian EMPIRE, with a mansion, bus (places to go, Sylvanians to meet) and even a treehouse that I nicked off my brother during his – sorry, Jack – Sylvanian-curious phase. It all sounds a bit Veruca salt, but I absolutely treasured those things.

The main big win for me with Sylvanians is that – oh em gee, am I about to write this – is that they’re a progressive tool for children.

For starters, they’re very gender neutral. They’re not all girls! You can play with any number of characters, whether that’s mothers, fathers, brothers, uncles or aunties – totally breaking the weird Barbie/Action Man myth that girls only want to play with ‘girl’ toys and vice versa.

In playing with all these characters, you start to form your own ideas about society and even politics. Do you want the father in the frog family to be the Kim Jong-un of the Sylvanian world? Or perhaps the mother in the hedgehog clan could be the Jeremy Corbyn of Sylvania. The possibilities are endless.

Sylvanians are also quite a good metaphor for race. No, really. Can the dog family get on with the meerkats? You decide in your little Sylvanian cosmos.

My Sylvanians lived it large. A session of playtime could be like an episode of Eastenders. My toys went to the Sylvanian bar, got pissed, and even had affairs. There were tears of laughter, tears of pain, and yes, even a bit of nooky in my Sylvanian society.

My two favourite Sylvanian characters were a rabbit called Arnie and a panda called Clara. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and produced several interracial Sylvanian babies. Whenever one would pop out of the womb, the Sylvanian midwife would exclaim: ‘it’s a rabbit!’ or ‘it’s a panda!’

There were also class distinctions in my Sylvanian world. Unfortunately the rat and its rodent companion were very much the underclass, mostly cause I thought they were a bit ugly. The same goes for the badger family. They never made it into the Sylvanian mansion, but lived on a caravan somewhere in Sylvanian world.

Even nowadays whenever I go past the Sylvanian shop in Highbury – which once awarded me third place in a Sylvanian-colouring competition (I WOZ ROBBED!) – I feel a bit nostalgic for it all and quite tempted to dig out my empire from the attic (where Arnie et al remain, waiting for some action). I still remain convinced that they’re one of the best things to play with when you’re a child. Forget the toybox, Sylvanians open Pandora’s box to the big wide world.

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Is incest about to increase along with sperm and egg donation?

Love thy brother (a bit too much): GSA might be an unexpected consequence of increases in egg and sperm donation
Love thy brother (a bit too much): GSA might be an unexpected consequence of increases in egg and sperm donation

Alibaba has been worrying.

Its concern surrounds China’s sperm banks, which are currently low on man juice. So unsettled was the e-commerce giant, that this week it set up a campaign to recruit more sperm donors, offering up to 5,000 yuan ($800) to any man willing to squirt his sample. The push resulted in over 22,000 sperm-bank sign-ups in three days.

In other parts of the world there hasn’t been the same need for financial incentives to gain donations. Statistics released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) showed sperm, and particularly egg, registrations have risen gradually in the UK. 586 male and 1,013 female donors signed up in 2013.

These figures look set to increase, especially with advancements in social media. Recently it was reported how one man from Birmingham had ‘helped’ nine woman, fathering ten children in nine months through offering his sperm on Facebook.

This may seem kind and generous, but there is also a much more dangerous – and ignored – side to seed sprinkling. And that concerns the psychological phenomenon of genetic sexual attraction (GSA).

This remains a thoroughly underresearched idea across sciences because it describes a taboo subject: incest. GSA is a powerful sexual attraction between close biological relatives – parent and offspring, siblings or half-siblings or first and second cousins – who meet for the first time as adults.

Most of us are not attracted to close biological relatives because we have lived with them in what has been described as a ‘critical period’ (from birth to the age of six). During this time, our domestic proximity to relatives is said to cause a desensitisation effect, which prevents us from ever wanting to bump and grind.

Unfortunately, in cases where this has not happened, there is a probability of GSA occurring. In fact, one Guardian article suggests that up to 50 percent of close relatives who reunite in adulthood will experience GSA. In the news there have been tragic – heartbreaking – cases of people who have succumbed to phenomenon; desperately in love with someone who’s desperately wrong for them. Just last year, one husband and wife in Brazil – who did not realise they were related – discovered on a radio show that they had the same mother.

Even worse is that no one is talking about GSA. And that’s partly because egg and sperm donation is a controversial area. Criticising it can be seen as a way of controlling and reducing homosexuals’ reproductive rights. It is, quite simply, not PC to question its legitimacy.

But in allowing sperm and egg to be so readily shipped out to different parents, we are creating a ticking time bomb. The problem surrounds the fact that most of these children will never experience that ‘critical period’ with their close relatives, meaning they will not be densitised to the effects of GSA.

New rules surrounding egg and sperm donation from the HFEA also mean that any child who was conceived on or after April 2005 can now seek information on their parents when they turn 16 years old. This will inevitably mean more children seeking out their biological relatives in adulthood, thereby upping instances of GSA.

And when these individuals do find that they have suddenly fallen in love with mummy, daddy or cousin Jimmy, there will be very limited routes to helping them. Not only is GSA grossly underresearched, but there remains little therapy for sufferers to work through their feelings or to break off incestuous relationships.

But I expect that’s something neither Alibaba nor the Birmingham Facebook donor want to consider. At the moment sperm and eggs are being dished out like kidneys or livers that can be easily transplanted into the home of another human being. But they are different in that they contain enormous amounts of personality.

They’re a dangerous commodity, and GSA is a dangerous consequence of their availability. It is not to say we shouldn’t have egg or sperm donation, only to point out that their current proliferation and accessibility, and even heavy marketing, is setting us up for a troublesome future.

Dear Hollywood, please stop trying to make me fancy Simon Pegg

Simon-simon-pegg-35510641-1280-943If aesthetic standards for women are so high in the film industry, isn’t it time men measured up too?

The ubiquity of Simon Pegg has bothered me recently.

I mean, I didn’t mind when he was doing comedy and all that lark. Cause he has one of those weird, adorable (being generous here) faces that will has the ability to make some people laugh (not me). But then this weird thing happened.

A Hollywood producer was casting parts for a romantic comedy called Man Up. And they decided the male lead who would be doing all this love, and sex, and kissy stuff would be Simon Pegg.

This surprised me, anyway. I have eyes – and a stomach – and there was something that made me feel a bit nauseous about said decision. Just like I felt queasy in 2008, when I watched the gorgeous Kirsten Dunst have to snog Pegg’s rodent-like face in How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.

Soz, Simon.

I’m sure you’re a nice guy – although you have been getting a bit cocky in interviews recently – but you’re not what women want. On screen, at least.

That’s why today I was perturbed to see Pegg back across my Netflix homepage, in an advert for his brand new show.

Netflix has never quite got it right with its algorithms. It thinks I am both a lesbian and gay man – all because I once selected that I liked Blue is the Warmest Colour and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. You just can’t win.

But it got it spectacularly wrong in suggesting to me I would want to watch Hector and the Search for Happiness.

After all, I know how to find happiness (at least when it comes to watching TV and films). And it starts with a hot bloke on my screen.

Goodness knows, as a woman I’ve earned the right to be critical of the calibre of men that grace my tele. Hollywood is incredibly tough on femkind when it comes to our appearance, and I don’t think it’s ever going to change. In fact, I think we should celebrate it. Beautiful people should be in art. And we should demand more from our male subjects.

At the moment, we’re getting a rough deal.

It’s not just Pegg. In 2013 we got that rom com – About Time – where poor Rachel McAdams was forced to cuddle up to Domhnall Gleeson. We’ve also had Steve Buscemi play a serial womaniser in Boardwalk Empire, whom I find about as sexy as a trip to Morrisons.

And don’t get me started on the rusty balls contingent. Tom Cruise, Gary Oldman, Johnny Deep, and – yes, even you – Jude Law, are still very much alive and kicking in Hollywood. And we’re still meant to believe some of the best looking women on the planet desire their wrinkly faces.

No one wants us when we’re wrinkly. Maggie Gyllenhaal recently discussed in the press how she was deemed – at thirty-seven years of age – too old to play the romantic love interest of a fifty-five year old. And I feel for her, truly.

But I also feel for me, and my eyes and my stomach when this picture comes out. I don’t want to watch a film about the underpant activity of a middle-aged man.

Just like I don’t want to watch films about smoochy Simon Pegg, or anyone else with a Picasso painting face in my rom com selection. He might give some form of hope that the ‘ordinary man’ can pull Kirsten Dunst. But it’s not true, and – anyway – films are about the extraordinary.

As women we are always demanding equal pay across the film industry. I think it’s time we also demanded equal aesthetics too. We’ve got a pulse – please get it racing, Hollywood.

Dancing with trolls: could feminists ‘kill off’ the enemy with a bit of kindness?

Guardian

If there’s one thing that terrifies most people, it’s fear of the unknown. Horror films prey on the human ability to be spooked by mystical entities that do not rear their heads, yet make their presence known.

Perhaps that’s why we’re all so scared of Twitter trolls. The person throwing stones from the other side of the computer can seem far more threatening than they really are.

The Guardian’s feminist brigade has given an unprecedented amount of attention to trolls in recent years, yesterday bringing out a video to shed light on this digitally-savvy enemy. Footage features peeved female journalist after peeved female journalist reading out nasty messages they’ve received from angry keyboard-tappers:

‘A bit of rape never harmed anyone’, spews one.

‘Kill yourself, c-nt nugget’, says another.

They’re not the only individuals to campaign. Caroline Criado-Perez regularly appears in the paper waxing lyrical about her ambitions to fight trolls.

Don’t get me wrong, as a possessor of two X chromosomes, I’m vexed by the nature of some of these messages. But from my own experience with trolling, I can’t help but feel we’re giving too much airtime to a group that has extremely limited intellectual credibility.

What you find, if you really start to examine trolling behaviour, is that far from being a menacing group of individuals, most of them are surprisingly inarticulate. Having published things on the internet, what I found most poignant about being attacked was not the horror of someone being rude to me, but just how grammatically inept they were as they slung their mud.

Trolls are a sort of terrorist – albeit not that dangerous – in that they are desperately keen for attention, but a bit uncertain about how to get it. Perhaps because they lack the literacy skills to compete with Criado-Perez et al, they take the easy route to getting noticed. Being a pain. Far from fearing or being angry with Twitter trolls, feminists might do better to pity this academically inferior group.

I have found that, like with babies when they throw their things out of the pram, trolls’ temper tantrums can be alleviated not by being ignored, or ticked off, but with a bit of TLC. When I have engaged with members of the cantankerous community on Twitter, Reddit and even the forum of my own blog, I find they quietly pipe down with a bit of attention. They just want to be loved, and most of all: noticed.

Feminists are noticing the trolls at the moment, but they are in dangerous territory of justifying a number of complaints against women (‘we cry easily’, type thing) by shrivelling into victims as soon as a Reddit user hurls some jumbled up swearwords at one of us.

We could learn – as they know in many service industries – that there is a certain amount of truth to the idiom ‘kill it with kindness’. Engaging with, and indulging, trolls to a certain extent can extinguish their flames of fury and also help to reinforce that we’re the ones in control.

It’s a hard knock life for tube drivers. Not.

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‘If at first you don’t succeed,: Try, try, try again’, seems to be the message from London’s tube drivers. But how little have they achieved by acting like a band of moody teenagers

Despite being stupidly optimistic about the prowess of the number 4 bus, today – like many commuters – I felt the chaotic impact of the tube strike.

We poor Londoners get so many of them. Almost like a cold, we accept their inevitability each year – hoping in vain that this’ll be the annum we don’t have one.

I was pretty annoyed with tube drivers for ruining my morning (and potentially day) until I saw an article by The Independent outlining the reasons they’ve decided to hang up their neon jackets. I was all ears – ready to listen and find out if being a tube driver really is that bad.

In the piece, Finn Brennan – a seasoned tube driver and lead negotiator for the strikers – says:

“This dispute has never been about money. It’s about the life/work balance for Tube drivers in London”, adding about nightshifts: “Anti-social hours are really unpopular, bad for your health, and extremely disruptive for family life.”

Brennan struggles to convey just what is so terrible about being a tube driver – the article reads as quite vague and, fundamentally, failed to pluck on my heartstrings. The gist of it is that the tube drivers are peeved about their working hours.

I feel bad for them having to do shifts that might cut up family life. I wouldn’t want to do that, either. But then I didn’t decide to be a tube driver. London needs to have one of the most flexible transport systems in the world – surely most of them should have realised that achieving this would have required malleability from recruits.

Tube drivers can hardly whine either because however inconvenient their hours are, they are remunerated very handsomely indeed. With starting wage at £49,673 a year and a generous leave, they’re doing substantially better than others in the public sector – including soldiers, firefighters and teachers.

If you look at the criteria for what makes tube drivers want to go on strike, you realise there are loads of other groups who might also be quite reasonably be inspired to do the same – such as interns, lawyers and dustbin collectors. In fact, if everyone decided to protest about working conditions, I’m sure we’d have no NHS – because if there’s one contingent of people who really are overstretched and underpaid, it’s doctors and their medical pals.

But they can’t strike because then everyone would die.

Tube drivers, at least, have a privilege in that no one is likely to bite the dust as a direct result of them not working.

Now they have this day off to twiddle their thumbs, might I suggest they think about more innovative strategies to promote their goals. The numerous amount of strikes suggests they haven’t been particularly successful in fighting for change. Could it be that their tactics are wrong?

They could at least fire their spokesman and get someone with more charisma to front their campaign. It’s unsurprising tube drivers have had to ‘walk’ to get some attention. For, reading Brennan’s Independent piece, he comes across as possibly one of the most unpersuasive and hopeless negotiators of all time. No wonder London Underground couldn’t be bothered to listen.

But fundamentally tube drivers could do more to not alienate the people of London. We are a generous public, eager to help with any noble cause. At the moment we don’t really know what the tube driver’s cause is in meaningful detail, and we’re reluctant to read into it because we’re too busy working out how to get home. I’m sure with better-promoted arguments, the tube drivers could have been far more successful in creating change. But at the moment, they’ve just pissed Londoners off – and when people are angry, they don’t feel like helping.

The Danczuk disaster: are women more gossipy about sex than men?

Karen Danczuk: she cray
Karen Danczuk: she cray

When I was younger I used to believe that when it came to gossiping about sex, men were more verbally incontinent than my fairer breed.

That’s partly because I was feasting upon a diet of high school movies. Locker scene after locker scene indoctrinated me with the idea that what boys did was talk about which nubile had the best tits, or whose cherry they wanted to take at the school disco.

Fast forward ten years and I’ve lived in the real world. I’ve seen how women – even those in important fields – can tittle and tattle and indulge in the worst of gossip while men grow out of adolescent bitchiness.

Case in point: Karen Danczuk.

Her disintegrating marriage to Labour MP Simon Danczuk has been of interest to several media outlets, and today she was ready to comment on what put the nail in the coffin in a series of Jeremy-Kyle-show worthy Tweets.

“There was no sex and we weren’t even kissing by the end. I stopped fancying him and we had no spark left,” she wrote – even going so far as to reveal she wanted her hubby to look elsewhere for sex.

Karen Danczuk isn’t the only political Mrs to air her dirty laundry. Sally (screw loose) Bercow has been doing a great job of that for years. Before the break up of her marriage to Commons Speaker John Bercow in May (after an affair with a total minger, might I add), she said on Big Brother: ‘I never realised how sexy I would find living under Big Ben with the bells chiming… Since John became Speaker, the number of women who hit on him has gone up dramatically’, adding that the couple used vibrators.

As news of Bercow’s affair spread quicker than chlamydia in an Ibizan youth hostel, the only one keeping silent on the matter was Bercow himself. Simon Danczuk has not been exactly tight-lipped about his marriage, but he has not stooped so low as to comment on the calibre of his and Mrs Danczuk’s sex life.

Purely based on anecdotal evidence, I can’t help feeling men aren’t as prolific as women at gossiping about their sex lives. A whole load of marketing campaigns for women, such as those run by Dove, are predicated on the idea that men are forever scrutinising and discussing women’s sexuality, when often it is the other way around.

Rarely do you hear a conversation between men discussing their latest squeeze’s nipples or vagina. Much more likely is a conversation between women about men’s penis size and performance in the bedroom. You could even see this on Bear Gryll’s recent show The Island, where two groups of men and women were separated. Footage showed the chaps discussing how much they loved their wives and girlfriends, whereas the ladies talked about micropenises and the anatomy of their lovers.

Even in social encounters – and I’m no saint – I have seen girls talk about intimate experiences with the flair and openness as if they were discussing a walk in the woods. We ask each other ‘was it good?’ about sex, as if discussing the lasagna in a restaurant. I think we mostly do this not to be evil but as a means to reclaiming experiences that can make us feel vulnerable, and to place them in perspective with others’.

Obviously I am not a lad and therefore not privy to the inner-circle of BANTZ, but I do have a lot of male friends with whom I am close – and I feel we never reach the deviant heights of conversation in the same way I might do with a XX-chromosome pal. In mixed encounters, I find that men become surprisingly conservative when women want to talk about lewd matters. Maybe it’s male pride.

Feminism and the sexual liberation of women are great things, but I worry they are being used to promote a sordid conversation that is not so much about exercising our rights, but inadvertently mocking our male counterparts. As a species, we do like to talk about things as a route to analysing our feelings (there is even evidence to show the language side of our brain is more active than blokes’). Of course, being able to talk is sometimes useful and healthy. But every now and then, characters like Sally Bercow and Karen Danczuk should realise that there is something very powerful about the masculine concept of the strong, silent type.

Amy Who-mer? Just another recruit from the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ school of marketing

LOOK INTO MY EYYYYES. YOU WILL FIND MY COMEDY FUNNNY
LOOK INTO MY EYYYYES. YOU WILL FIND MY COMEDY FUNNNY

For me, Facebook isn’t just about frendzzz, it’s what I use to consume newspapers and magazines. I follow a load of them on my feed.

I thought everyone did this. But they don’t, and I’m not sure I can recommend it -partly because it can be slightly immersive at times. Occasionally I feel like I’m in a terrorist war zone when I’m actually just eating nuts at my desk.

Recently my wall has been blocked up with stories about ONE PERSON. They’re always there like an ant in the kitchen you can’t exterminate.

I’m talking about Amy Schumer.

Aside from being a comedian, with a vaguely amusing repertoire, Schumer is potentially the neediest person on the planet.

But may she need no more attention because pretty much all the world’s media outlets (worst offender: Mashable), have been heavily promoting this loltastic woman – for reasons that totally elude me.

Reading articles about Amy Schumer, you would think that Jesus Christ had been resurrected, with all the idolatry and hyperbolic rhetoric.

Take these headlines, for example: ‘7 reasons Amy Schumer would be the best Bachelorette ever’ or ‘Amy Schumer TOTALLY Shuts Down Hater Who Called Her ‘Sexually-Aggressive’ During Trainwreck Q & A!’

OMGGGG.

There are so many Amy Schumer articles that I’m almost becoming paranoid, continually asking ‘who’s plugging this woman’? Perhaps she’s an evil dictator masquerading as a thirty-something New Yorker. I might even create my own ‘Schumer’ conspiracy theory to explain the sudden influx of promotional material about her.

I’ve seen this sort of plugging before. At the Olympic Games in 2012, in what I like to call: ‘SandéGATE’.

Forget ‘Here’s Johnny’, if there was one person there was no escape from at the ceremonies it was Emeli Sandé.

Quite apart from being the star of the Olympics for no obvious reason (come on, she’s an alrighhhht singer with alrighhhht looks), she was so heavily marketed in the press that it felt like there was no real choice but to embrace her.

It’s not always press who push ‘talent’. Sometimes talent can push itself. Characters like Paloma Faith and James Cordon are shameless in their desire to force themselves onto our screens. They’re basically like having a skin condition you’re forced to live with, but eventually learn to embrace and accept (James Cordon being the slightly more itchy one).

The point of all these people is that they trap us into liking them, in a way that I find surprisingly sinister.

It sort of reminds me of Stockholm syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which a kidnapped person eventually comes to identify, like and defend their captors, without being able to see that they’re actually a bit shit.

And that’s how it feels with Amy Schumer – like Stockholm syndrome. She is locking us into liking her.

She smiles, and tells jokes, and has a round face like the sun, but she’s monopolising the comedy market – in the same way that sinister corporations cut out smaller businesses.

We shouldn’t have to like Amy Schumer. But when she’s being shoved down our throats in the same way that a baby is fed something new, I want to puke up.