women-and-reinvention4-1024x564Illustration by Phyllida Bluemel


The only men to attend diet club are Arg and Diags, whose failures to curb poor eating habits, learn to drive, get a job/girlfriend make them pseudo-males, wannabes, laughing-stocks among men. For both, a stab at reinvention is a necessity in order for them to try and flip the coin and become recognised alpha-males; for the girls it is presumably a lifelong progress to be a better version of female.

As far as I can gather this distinction is what TOWIE is all about. It is demonstrable even in the ratio of men to women: there are far fewer men – most can be paired off as either ‘saddos’ like Arg or successes like Mark Wright (bigger muscles, tighter t-shirts, uglier cars) – and an array of different girls in much vaguer competition for a much less singular goal. One of the imperatives of being an Essex ‘gel’ seems to be ‘keep trying, you’ll get there (or at least somewhere.)’ The challenge for the men is more diametric: alpha-male or underdog, win or lose.

At the risk of tipping my contemporary cultural references from relevant into reprehensible by channelling Carrie Bradshaw[2], “I got to thinking” what this trend might mean. It recalled to me a quote from Harold Pinter’s The Lover, in which a husband and wife are locked in a fantasy that involves the man leaving for work only to return in a new guise as his wife’s lover. Pinter, not always a feminist favourite but a genius at identifying the iceberg-tip of the ambiguous human psyche nonetheless, identifies the unsustainable tenor of their relationship and, in typical sinister style, reverses it in the husband’s final ominous words:





Change your clothes.


You lovely whore.”

For Richard in The Lover this is an explicitly repressive tactic. The situation his wife Sarah calls “beautifully balanced” – in which they both play multiple roles that evolve according to mutual desires – he considers untenable. He seeks to reunite with his alterego in the singularity of masculinity, “he’s a man, like me. We’re both men,” but forces his wife to remain temporary and incomplete. One moment she is too bony, the next she is too plump; his attentions are constantly redirected away from her present incarnation to the wife, mother, mistress or whore who awaits him in her next reinvention.

In this context men stay the same – singular, indivisible, solid – or at least apply themselves to the same rigid scale of ‘manliness,’ ranging from 0-10. Women devote their lives to self-improvement according to a multifarious and ever-evolving ideal that precludes true satisfaction with a single, balanced whole that she can be proud of and call ‘complete.’ If there’s no identifiable finish line, you can’t win. In some sense the male becomes the standard, the norm, the scale by which the amorphous, mouldable female can be measured, contained and reimagined—whatever he wants her to be. The phrase “divide and conquer” might just be the perfect tagline for a misogynists’ manifesto—you know, after gems like “bro’s before ho’s” and the derogative “pussy.”[3]

Because women seem always to be engaged in self-reinvention of some description or degree and always have been. In the – I would argue still brilliant – female characterisation of the very first novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders and lesser known Roxana struggle with the simultaneous empowerment and disenfranchisement that come with social mobility. In Robinson Crusoe the hero discovers God and becomes an honest man. The moral tenor of Moll and Roxana’s stories is more ambiguous: is acceptance of a powerless female lot more laudable than aspiring to more? If not, at what point should such aspiration be curbed or satisfied, and how? Stealing, prostitution, incest, deceit – is this what girls not being enough as just girls (not fortunate rich ‘ladies’ or men) must inevitably lead to?

We need only look to some of the most memorable femicentric tales in subsequent literature (I’m thinking Pamela, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, all of Jane Austen, most of the boring Brontës – who said that? – and modernists like Jean Rhys and Edith Wharton) to see what a huge part social mobility and self-reinvention play in the lives of women – at times for their benefit, but frequently to their detriment.

This is perhaps because there have always been ‘breeds’ or types of women in society whereas men are often in a Pip-from-Great-Expectations-esque battle between grandeur and failure. Juliet Stevenson identified something similar on International Women’s Day a couple of weeks ago: “Women remain fetishised for the things that don’t last – smooth skin, firm shape – while men are fetishised for the things that do – wealth, status, know-how.”[4] Women seem frequently to be measured on a scale of self-improvement ad infinitum in a complex table of unachievable simultaneous goals (be a mother in stilettos, never feel insecure while maintaining a size 6-10, be virginal with a hint of kink, be a successful career woman with a soft touch, be Mother Theresa but match the ‘lads’ downing drinks.)

Of course in the real life everyone but Pinter inhabits – where the women are not either aged and wittering or in a constant state of immanent orgasm and the men are not just… very weird – things are never that simple. Men and women alike are in a permanent state of self-reinvention just trying to exist as human beings. And clearly a sense of one’s own mobility is not always a bad thing. Frequently the more admirable, accessible, honest feat is to admit to being an “I want to be” rather than claiming to be an “I am.”

And of course the man I didn’t mention who also attended Gemma’s diet club in TOWIE was Bobby—the gay man (albeit I am hesitant to tar all gay men with his rather obnoxious brush,) who cannot be categorised or reformulated because he remains an unknown quantity, neither on the traditional heterosexual ‘man scale’ nor a projection of the female dream. The boundaries are by definition breakable. A man, gay or otherwise, can, of course, be ever-evolving, unpredictable and unapologetic with it (I know many who are, as do you.) A woman can reclaim her diversity and struggle towards the ever-receding goal of actuality by refusing to see it as a negative self-abnegation. Maybe I am my struggle, not the bits I don’t manage. I am an unknown quantity, not just a ‘man’ or a ‘woman,’ but a human being.

[1] Evening Standard 6/3/13[2] Another show which saw women self-reinvent over decades, searching for fulfilment with men (specifically one man) who stayed the same – if you’re not buying that, review the girls’ array of hairstyles and then look at two pictures of Chris Noth then and now – the man’s uncanny[3] See Doc Brown’s talk for the Great Men Value Women campaign for a non ‘gender-biased’ analysis on that point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOGeilUgTtw[4] Part of the ace “Feminist and proud: why we need the ‘F’ word” in The Telegraph, 8/3/13 —FEATURE ILLUSTRATION BY PHYLLIDA BLUEMEL