There are many ways to create or conserve habitat in which the Welsh language can thrive. For any language to survive, it also needs a rich habitat of ideas in which to explore, roam and ultimately set up home.
I’m raising kids through the medium of Welsh. And I am raising feminists. Two boys, so far, and a girl (actually, that’s us done). But I’m not in this Welsh language thing to tick any boxes. I’m not just going to send them to Welsh school, and then be like ‘that’s that covered then’.
It’s not about some future job application, where they will be able to say ‘yes certainly, I can be your token Welsh speaker’, and then in a panic, have to sign up for an ‘Advanced Welsh for the Workplace‘ course.
If we are doing this (which we are) then we are really doing it. We are doing all of it, in Welsh.
So I need to get a handle on tackling some stuff, and I want to talk about how feminism, and generally calling out sexism, can be about protecting habitat for the Welsh language.
Because a genuinely rich habitat for the Welsh language needs a wide range of ideas to be represented and have space to express themselves. And a fully functioning, healthy ecosystem that supports a large population, needs a variety of niches.
Feminism, as far as niches go, is very important.
So if I am raising Welsh speaking feminists, and if I purport to be one myself, then I feel it is necessary to explore some stuff, get some things of my chest, and release some bees from my bonnet.
With this in mind, part of this blog is an extremely untimely review of a TV series that first aired in 2010 (Pen Talar).
But before I get into that…
Feminists and Welsh speakers (like me, you may be both) understand what it is like to be on the wrong side of hegemony. To regard power, and know that it is male, white, straight, and speaks English.
I am a feminist. I am a white, straight, cis woman, so I don’t pretend that I haven’t also enjoyed the benefit of being on the empowered side of many a hegemony or two. I am also a fluent welsh learner, originally from England, who is bringing up her kids in Welsh. So I have a not unique, but certainly nuanced viewpoint on some of the issues around gender and language politics.
Often, I find myself asking questions that I am surprised other people in the room are not asking.
Increasingly, as my Welsh language skills have improved and I have begun to consume more film, TV and literature through the medium of Welsh, I find that I am raising the issue of gender stereotypes and misogyny more and more.
I’ve been mulling this post over at the back of my mind now for quite some time, and feeling conflicted about where to begin. Analysing this conflict, I think it is born out of a reluctance to criticise Welsh language artistic endeavour.
Which is kind of patronising of me when you think about it.
But my hesitation is born of good intentions. It’s because I value all contributions to Welsh language cinema, TV and literature, if not equally. If people weren’t writing, then our Welsh book club in Penarth would have precious little to discuss. If people weren’t making film and TV in Welsh, then our culture would be the poorer for it, and what would be the point in raising children in a language in which their was no cultural heritage to enrich their lives?
I am a member of two book clubs. One is fairly new and is a gathering of Welsh speakers and learners who have come together out of a desire to read more Welsh literature.
The other is affectionately named The All Wales Book Club, and I have been reading and discussing books in English with this inspiring group of women for about nine years now.
Feminism is a recurrent theme in The All Wales Book Club. A book doesn’t have to have a feminist message to be powerful or enjoyable, and we read books about and by men too (who of course can also be feminists), but you can’t sneak a sly helping of misogyny past us easily, we’ll just laugh. You can’t palm us off with a lazy stereotype or a predictable gender trope, we always notice.
In contrast, I’ve been a bit surprised so far, by some of the books and also the response of my friends in the Welsh language book club. There has been a fair amount of misogyny, plus lazy stereotypes and gender tropes fair galloping across the page, but this has been getting less attention than I am used to (except that I usually point it out, so then we do talk about it).
So in writing this post, my intention is not to lay into Welsh language artistic endeavour, it is to contribute to debate. Because the best way to show that you appreciate any piece of art is to reflect upon it. To react. To engage. To acknowledge that it has been emotive.
Also, I’m saying to the Welsh language:
‘OK, I’m in, you’ve got me for keeps now, so bring it on, I’m ready to engage with you on everything, no holding back.’ And if the Welsh language has got me for keeps, then it gets all of me, including my feminist slant on the world.
So here I am, and I want to tell you about why Pen Talar, years after I watched it, still makes me angry, and in doing so, reflect on some wider themes around gender and how women are portrayed in some of the Welsh medium fiction and film I have encountered.
I wanted to like Pen Talar, I really did. Part of me actually did like it. The part of me that is used to accepting the Patriarchy and keeping quiet, but that part isn’t getting out a lot these days…
You may not have seen Pen Talar. Despite my strong feelings on the topic, I would still encourage you to watch it, albeit with a critical eye.
In a series of 9×60 minute episodes, filmed in 2010, Pen Talar follows our fictional hero Defi Lewis, through from childhood in the sixties, spanning 5 decades of his life and Wales’ political evolution.
I wanted to like this series because it is about Nationhood. It is a good piece of television. It is well acted and directed, and pulls off the device of telling an epic story on the scale of a Nation, through the lens of one man’s life and struggles.
And of course, this is a series about a man, about men, written and directed by men, and there is nothing wrong or unusual in that. There are female characters, but they are sidekicks. The sister, the wife. They get to play the love interest, the mother, to narrowly escape being left ‘on the shelf’ and, all too often the fate of female characters, to die in tragic circumstances.
I could have forgiven Pen Talar for these predictable foibles.
Defi Lewis’ wife is killed in a car crash. A freak accident. Defi mourns… (sorry, did I mention there will be spoiler alerts?)
But there is another female death in this series, tragic because it was avoidable, and not, in any way, a freak accident. Defi’s character is built to a large extent around his witnessing of this tragedy, back in Rhydycaeau when he was a child.
This other death is that of a young teenage girl who has learning difficulties, and who is raped by the local clergyman (the viewer understands that the abuse has been ongoing).
After getting the girl pregnant, the priest takes her for a backstreet abortion, which is botched, and he then leaves her to wander, delirious, in the woods, where her subsequent death is witnessed by Defi and his best friend.
This is grim viewing. It is fictitious, but not unbelievable.
You know that a similar fate has befallen countless real women.
This story line is of course intended to arouse anger and fury in Defi, his friend, and the viewer alike, and it does. That this young woman has been abused and has lost her life, at the hands of a man who has misused his trust within the community, is an injustice that Defi is unable to forget.
Now, I’ve no problem with the story line, to this point. It is a depiction of abuse, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.
My criticism of Pen Talar, and the reason it makes me angry, is the way this part of the story line is dealt with subsequently, when Defi is in his fifties, and we see him ‘lay to rest’ his memories of the event.
Later in life, he returns to Rhydycaeau, and confronts the clergyman. We are to understand that both these men have suffered a great deal. That their lives have been ruined. And that they can only move on once they have absolved each other. There is atonement. There is forgiveness.
And there is still a dead, raped teenage girl.
So, yes. I have a problem with this, because it makes me see red to watch these two men, in their entitlement, wrestle with their troubled consciences. That we are expected to witness the absolution of the abuser. That we are asked to accept the narrative that this is all about them.
That Defi sees fit to forgive this man, and yet remain the hero. That the abuser’s guilt is deemed sufficient to atone for a life lost. A young woman raped, butchered and left for dead.
Because there is still, a dead, raped teenage girl. When does she get her plot resolution?
And I seem to be the only person asking this question. Every time another friend borrows this box set (it is doing the rounds in our social circle) the reviews are favourable, and I am the only one asking these questions and mentioning the misogynist plot line.
Now, I get that this is in other ways a fantastic series, for some of the reasons I have already mentioned. It is ground breaking, and we need more series like this to bravely unpack from of the complex narratives around the Welsh National pysche.
But must we tolerate misogyny in order to achieve this?
Are we doing Welsh language productions any favours if we don’t critique them in as rigorous a way as we would a series in English?
How do other series fare? What are you watching? Maybe we can compare and contrast.
We are currently watching the first series of Y Gwyll (Hinterland, if you have watched the English language version).
The reason we are so behind with this (it’s now into its third series) incidentally, is that I boycotted Y Gwyll for a long time because it annoyed me so much that they filmed a different version in Engish. If millions of people will watch The Killing in Danish with English subtitles then I’m sure people could have managed the Welsh version of Y Gwyll (they could still have called it Hinterland).
But that might have raised the profile of the Welsh language amongst people who don’t speak it. Like in England.
Anyway. So far, Y Gwyll hasn’t enraged me, although many of the female characters have ended up dead (plus some men to be fair). The main female leads aren’t exactly challenging any of the usual stereotypes (you’ve got the moody brunette who never gets to discover any of the clues and probably has an unrequited crush on DC Mathias, and the bubbly blonde who is disliked for no reason by the brunette).
Time will tell…
Its not like its always any better in English language TV and film, by any stretch…
But can’t we have a Welsh language version of Sarah Linden?
A strong female character? A Welsh speaking Jessica Jones? (Strong as in real, with depth and flaws, not as in ‘kicks ass and shoots stuff up’).
So I get that the pool is smaller. This is certainly the case with children’s books, and will hopefully improve with time. There is now a growing movement of books in English featuring strong girl role models (check out A Mighty Girl). There is some good stuff in Welsh, for instance Mor-Ladron y Ardd, and many of the Barbara Donaldson books which have been translated into Welsh (you may know of other good stuff I have missed, in which case please leave a comment).
And we do have Lowri Morgan.
But obvious opportunities are still wasted. My 7 year old and I were reading one of the Saith Selog books yesterday. These are abridged adaptations of The Secret Seven, by Enid Blyton, translated into Welsh. Now obviously, Blyton was no feminist, although she did use the word ‘Fanny’ a lot (talking of The Famous Five, also available as an abridged version in Welsh, you may have your own take on George as a character – you don’t have to be a ‘Tom Boy’ to be brave and a girl, but arguably George is an early advocate for non-binary gender identity…discuss).
Anyway, I was getting so annoyed reading this Saith Selog book that we had to abort and conduct an impromptu piece of gender research.
There are three female and four male members of Saith Selog. I can live with that, it’s hard to achieve equality with odd numbers.
But for crying out loud.
The boys are referred to by name an average of 13 times each (I know because we counted, like I say it’s an abridged version).
The girls only 5 times each, and most of the mentions are of the same female character.
All the action in the book is performed by the male characters (except for Sioned, who completes a jig-so and falls over a bin).
Every time the one of the girls speak they express fear, or suggest that the adventure might not be a good idea.
To his credit, my son thought this was stupid. He says girls are brave. That they can climb ropes too. He can see it, and he is seven. But then that’s because we are taking about sexism, when we are reading these books.
So I think we can do better than this.
OK, Saith Selog is an adaptation and the story is lifted from the not very gender enlightened Blyton fifties. But we didn’t need to lift the stereotypes with the plot. We could have given the girls more to say. Let them be ‘penderfynol‘ (determined) too, not just Pedr, and Colin (who does shimmy up a rope) and Jac (who saves the day by fetching the police).
To be fair it’s possible that the Welsh version is a translation from an already abridged English version (it’s not clear), in which case maybe the stereotypes were transferred at that point.
Maybe you could argue that it wouldn’t have been true to the originals to give the girls anything of any substance to say.
But how refreshing would it be, if creating an ‘addasiad‘ (an adaptation), in Welsh, also meant that a book got freshened up from a gender perspective too? Why not just change some of those male characters (because in many children’s books all the leads are male anyway) to girls? Hell, why not make some of them not white while we are at it?
How cool would that be? If translation into Welsh routinely involved getting to have a more equitable portrayal of people who speak the Welsh language?
Because in order to really make sure that this Welsh language malarky sticks (I’m being tongue in cheek, because I know by now that you know that I am committed) we need to be rigorous. I wouldn’t let this kind of sexism go idly by if I was parenting in English, so neither will I in Welsh.
If my boys (and their sister once she is old enough) are going be equipped to actually use Welsh in real life situations, to be whole, rounded people, in a whole, rounded, inclusive society, then we need to be having these conversations and calling out sexism when it sneaks in through the medium of Welsh.
It’s still sexist, after all, even if it comes with a nasal mutation.
And yes, I’m talking about you too Lloyd Owen (I’m picking on you unfairly because I’m still in the early days of my Welsh reading journey and I happen to have read Taffia).
I know this is Pulp fiction in Welsh, and that that is a great and fantastic thing to have. But you can have pulp fiction without misogyny and gender tropes (I’m not great on picking up on irony yet in Welsh, so if you were being deeply ironic and I missed it, then I humbly apologise. But I don’t think that you were…)
You seem like a resilient kind of a guy (thanks for coming to the literature festival in Penarth, I enjoyed your talk). So I think you can probably take this on the chin as constructive criticism. How about writing some strong female characters into your next book? Did any of the women in your earlier books fair better than Julia? Did any of them get the benefit of character development, or manage not to fall apart entirely, descending into alcoholism and neglecting their children as soon as their man is no longer around to ‘look after them’? (I haven’t read any of your other books I’m sorry, but I’m game if you have a recommendation).
I should probably just mention Jonathan too, while I’m here. Because while we are on the topic, is it just me, or are mildly sexist and homophobic jokes just, a little bit last century? Getting a cheap laugh from stereotypes (S4C call it ‘leg-pulling’) just seems a bit lazy these days.
Lastly, I won’t event mention the ‘bare breasted, hot, twin sisters in the bath’ scene in Y Llyfrgell. Because naturally the National Library of Wales wouldn’t have been enough of a visual feast.
(To be clear, I have nothing against naked breasts, which are a beautiful thing, and not sexist in any way. Sometimes they may even be important to the plot. But men are expected to get their kit off for the camera a lot less frequently than women, aren’t they? And they usually get paid more for the privilege of keeping their clothes on…)
So if we are going to create Welsh language habitat that today’s young people will want to hang out in (hell, that I want to) then we need to call out sexism when we see it. Otherwise somewhere down the line we’ll realise that although we’ve conserved lots of habitat, its all set in the 1950s, and that its not fit for purpose because nobody is actually called Fanny anymore…
Geirfa defnyddiol / some useful Welsh words
Treisio: to rape
Dringo rhaff: rope climbing
Obviously, my hope in writing this, is that you will comment in your droves on how there are oodles of examples of strong feminist writing, and great female characters to be found in Welsh literature/film/TV.