Heard the one about the Orthodox Jewish woman suing Lancôme? (Independent Voices)

Advertising, as any consumer with their head screwed on is aware, isn’t really about telling the whole truth. That’s not to say that consistently eating Special K won’t give you the body of the fresh-faced model in red – simply that it’s just as likely you’ll end up with a stomach ache and a craving for chocolate. Buying that shampoo probably won’t leave your hair as salon glossy as Cheryl’s, unless you’re blessed with a personal hairdresser. And no matter how adorable the mascot, car insurance is surely not best chosen on that basis.

So the natural response, as we read with mirth of the woman who is suing Lancôme over the failure of her 24-hour-cream to last for that period, is to shake our heads. “How ridiculous,” we think. “Surely that’s not a real story.” Unfortunately, it is. Rorie Weisberg, who comes across as a veritable “disgusted of…” is apparently taking legal action so absurd that it is reminiscent of a case contested by Ally McBeal.

But, I’d hazard, the reason it’s been so gleefully shared around the web? She’s not just any disgruntled customer. She’s from the Orthodox Jewish community, a world brimming with seemingly bizarre rules and restrictions, like not being able to put on make-up on the Sabbath. A sexist, antiquated, closeted world where, as Weisberg’s case clarifies, women slather on make-up on a Friday night and require it to remain until sundown. A world where women see nothing strange about doing this.

The public seems to have something of a fascination with the strictly Orthodox community, just as it does with any other supposed outliers – Gypsies, say, or Mormons, or the Amish, or indeed people with 16 kids, or the unbelievably obese. I’ve lost count of the number of documentaries casting an eye on the Jews of Stamford Hill, or the regularity with which stories about sex guides for the ultra-religious appear. A photograph of an ultra-Orthodox man wrapped in plastic on a plane was shared around the globe, and discussed with amusement on Have I Got News For You.

To an extent, there’s a natural intellectual curiosity about a closed society; media coverage, and indeed television and books, offers a rare window. If we cannot experience something ourselves, the next best is to be told about it. Yet there’s a fine line between curiosity and thinly-veiled contempt, between offering the opportunity for people to learn about something and giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card to laugh about it.

At the risk of disagreeing with the herd, I found watching the musical The Book of Mormon rather uncomfortable, given that we were essentially being asked to snigger at the ignorant, whether the Mormon missionaries or the generic African villagers. Oh, but it was actually poking fun at American exceptionalism, I’m told. Well, yes, but what about the fact that it involved smug, superior writers all but giggling like children at a culture distinct from their own?

The Mormons, of course, have reacted rather well to the show, and launched a recruitment drive off the back of it. Good for them. And of course we should be able to laugh at religion, to point out its absurdities, and still tolerate it as part of a healthy melting-pot society. I might be Jewish, but I’ve no more connection than the next person to the baffling decisions made in the name of faith by those on the extreme fringes of the community. I can see the comedy value in a passenger who has essentially cling-filmed himself because he is so devout; I can appreciate how ludicrous it is that the woman wouldn’t just reapply the next morning. And it’s not as if these stories are fabricated to cast strictly Orthodox Jews in a bad light – on the contrary – perhaps frustratingly for the rest of the Jewish community – they are all too real.

And I know exactly why newspapers, documentary makers and bloggers seize on these cases – they are funny and ridiculous, and they guarantee plenty of web traffic and twitter discussion. But it’s hard to be totally relaxed with the way laughing about extreme religious behaviour has become so mainstream, so trendy.

For by and large, there is no attempt at understanding, at examination. These anecdotes are not reported on because they tell us anything about those communities, only because they are humorous. They reveal absurd caricatures taking observance to the furthest extreme, and tar an entire community with the brush of the strangest member. As a supposedly tolerant, inclusive society, I’m not sure we should be so comfortable with that.

This piece orginally appeared on the Independent website. See the orginal here

Silicon Valley’s superwoman should stop writing and start campaigning (Running in Heels)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Jolanda Flubacher)

It might be when she talks about sauntering up to her Google bosses and demanding a better parking space that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women starts to rankle. Or perhaps it’s the anecdote about finding nits in her children’s scalp en route to a business meeting – while on eBay’s private jet – that makes your blood boil, just a little. Or the way that each interview she’s done has been full of diversions – about being a geek, breaking down at work, or being terrible at walking in high heels – that are clearly designed to prove how much of an everywoman she is but instead come across as characteristics of the modern feminist icon that her publicist has selected straight from central casting. Here she is: Silicon Valley superwoman, Facebook’s second-most recognisable face, well-coiffed with the perfect family to boot, plus  a litany of career successes under her belt – and all before her 45th birthday. And she’s telling all the other women out there that it’s easy to be just like her; they’ve merely got to be more assertive.

Sandberg discussing her book Lean In…

To be fair to Sandberg, that’s a slightly narrow interpretation of her new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is being marketed as something of a manifesto for the 20th century career woman. In the extracts and interviews with her I’ve read so far (of which there have been several – her marketing team needs a rise), her advice follows a familiar thread. Women, she explains, need to be less afraid of success and learn to appreciate achievement as the other half do.

Shesays: “Women internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives-the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men-and pull back when we should lean in.” Sandberg isn’t wrong, and her advice is far more tolerable and constructive than that of women who have broken through the glass ceiling and can’t see why everyone else is making such a fuss about it. She’s absolutely spot on when she talks about the phenomenon of women feeling like “frauds” when they are successful, rather than simply soaking up praise for a job well done. Her suggestion that women hold themselves back rings true; in my own experience, it’s noticeable how male writers are usually willing to pitch opinion pieces out of the blue, while female writers seem surprised that they might be able to float an idea. They wait to be asked, a trend that Sandberg acknowledges, in a way that men simply don’t.

Of the women I know – intelligent, capable and qualified twenty-somethings with bright careers ahead – many speak of the very concerns Sandberg raises. They confess to feeling inadequate, as if they were imposters in their roles, to believing that they need to better than the best just to keep up with their (mostly male) colleagues. Most assume that the myth of “having it all,” sold to us during our school years, is just that, that something, somewhere, will have to give.

The problem isn’t that her advice is unwelcome, unreasonable, or even that she’s stating the obvious. It’s that, ultimately, it’s meaningless. Sandberg is correct that pregnant women should get better parking spaces; that we should be demanding equal pay, and the appreciation men in the workplace take as their birthright. But it’s hardly a revelation – we’ve known for years that we should be heeding these feminist rallying cries. The problem is that we don’t. We haven’t yet, and it’s unlikely enough of us will.

This week Sandberg – former chief of staff to a US treasury secretary – told The Times: “really, honestly, I’m not going into politics.” Perhaps she’s just fooling us, or even herself. Let’s hope so. For if more women like Sandberg – the ones that have “leaned in to overcome their fears and sit at the table – were in politics, maybe some of what she is urging would take effect. If Sandberg could secure that parking space with minimal heartache, just imagine what she could do as a politician if she took on businesses over maternity rights or flexible working. Surely in the fight for more affordable childcare, someone like Sandberg should be leading the charge?

Ultimately, as she admits “the blunt truth is that men still run the world”. No amount of well-meaning advice is going to change the fact that this is, for many, a reality. Books and words advocating equality are great. But they would be far more valuable if she turned them into action.

This post originally appeared on Running in Heels.

My two weeks in writing

Last week’s newspaper was mainly taken up by coverage of the fighting between Israel and Hamas, and each day was spent posting up-to-date reports and news on our website. In the paper, I reported on Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s response to the escalating fighting in the region, which many criticised for drawing on long-established antisemitic tropes.

In more light-hearted news, I rounded-up the annual Jewish Film Festival, which it’s director said had been the best year yet, and spoke to a man whose long-lost great-uncle had been a Hollywood filmmaker in the era of the silent picture.

In Comment, I was delighted to commission Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, to look at how other countries than Israel have responded to similar threats on their doorsteps. And I wrote a piece sharing my thoughts and opinions on the situation in Israel, arguing that while there are strong emotions on either side, balance is important.

“Mothers on both sides are seeing their children caught up in a war they did not seek. Recognising that does not draw a moral equivalence between the two sides, or absolve Hamas of responsibility for actions that triggered another devastating battle.

We can highlight where the media has fallen short and we can question a paper for printing a cartoon reproducing established antisemitic tropes, without rejecting every uncomfortable report. We can stand up for Israel and make the case for its right to protect its people – and still acknowledge the tragedy of war. For Israel’s sake, we must.”

As the week turned into the next, I reported on a Lords debate about religion, in which the Chief Rabbi suggested that faith could “act as a counter voice to the siren song of a culture that sometimes seems to value self over others”.JC-Nov30

I also interviewed advertising star Nicola Mendelsohn, about her recent appointment as chair of the Creative Industries Council and found out why she believes the arts are so important to this country.

Continuing on the theme of culture, I reported on the plans to open an indoor Jacobean theatre beside Shakespeare’s Globe, and followed up on Beth Alexander’s ongoing campaign for custody of her two young sons in Vienna. And in what I hope is the last installment of my coverage of Batsheva’s UK tour, I spoke to Dance Consortium about why it has been one of their most successful tours yet.

Delta’s fantastic Frankenstorm social networking

With tickets to New York to fly last Tuesday night, at the first reports of the Frankenstorm (or Hurricane Sandy, for those not on Twitter) I started to question whether I’d get there. By the Sunday afternoon, with flights being cancelled all over the shop, evacuations of huge areas of land and states of emergency declared in several states, getting there looked even less likely.

So I decided to tweet Delta, the airline I was due to fly with, to find out how to proceed if my flight was cancelled. Their account looked fairly active (plenty of companies have Twitter accounts that haven’t been touched for weeks or even months) and I thought it was worth a try. At this point, my flight was still set to depart as scheduled, but I wanted to know their policy on refunds and rescheduling.

So far, so impressive. First thing on the Monday I did as they asked. More flights were being cancelled and the news about the storm wasn’t good, but my flight was still supposed to go ahead.

So I got on with my day, until late afternoon – with the news out of the East Coast getting progressively worse – when I checked my flight. “Cancelled” it read, in glaring letters. I followed the steps showing me how to reschedule online, but inevitably that didn’t work. After a lengthy period on hold, we discovered that having booked through a travel provider, Delta’s UK staff were not prepared to help. But the provider claimed not to know of the cancellation (then closed for the day, with no option for an out-of-hours solution) leaving us in a Catch 22 situation.

So I sent a tweet.

After another 40 minutes on hold, I checked my phone. Delta had replied, and I couldn’t have asked for them to be more efficient. After asking for my confirmation number, they soon responded with an offer of a flight for Thursday, with a stopover in Boston. Not only that, but they offered to extend our flight free of charge a day later than we were originally due to fly back. I asked for them to email a confirmation, and within 15 minutes I had one in my inbox. I checked my reservation online, and voila – my new details were in there.

The fact that I was able to change my flights – during the worst storm to hit the East Coast in a century – is a credit to Delta. But if I’d only tried via the phone line, I’m fairly sure I’d still have been at square one after the storm hit. The fact that I did this via a set of Twitter messages is fantastic. This is exactly why social media is so important for companies. Delta should be congratulated on a job well done.

Ruby Sparks and manic pixie dream girls

Why are women on screen so hopelessly unrealistic? Not always, of course, but I’ve lost count of the number of films and television programmes purporting to show a “real” female character – that is, not  a rom com creation or a fanboy’s pneumatic fantasy – that have gone horribly wrong.

Usually, this involves the women in indie films, where the male characters have been written precisely to go beyond stereotype, yet the women are one dimensional cartoons. Case in point; Zooey Deschanel on New Girl.

As the blogosphere has labelled her, this woman, who is a foil to the agonising male, is a “manic pixie dream girl” (there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to this). Invariably, this woman is quirky, spontaneous, emotional but adorable; intelligent yet impractical; delightful yet different to everyone else.

She wears oddly-matched clothes, has flowing wavy hair, a small nose and just enough angles on her face to not be conventionally beautiful (but she is attractive nonetheless). She is clumsy, yet endearingly so. She likes obscure music and art, and is outspoken yet accurate in her descriptions. And I’ve never met her in real life.

So it was enjoyable to watch a film that picked up on the failure of male writers to script their dream women in a convincing way. Ruby Sparks, in which a male wunderkind writer (Paul Dano) writes about his dream woman (Zoe Kazan), only for her to morph from mirage to living, breathing girlfriend, features a character that conforms to most of the above specifications.

Of course, she isn’t real; she’s just a composite of what a man thinks he wants and thinks a woman can be. And as the romantic miracle starts to go awry, this becomes clear to the writer and the audience. Written by Kazan herself, the main message of the film is about the possibility or impossibility of changing someone, but the sense that she is challenging the indie film staple – the quirky dream girl – is there too. As is said in the film: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”

The ‘Met Police’ malaware computer scam

This message popped up on my screen earlier this week, bringing everything that was running on my PC to a halt and sending me into paroxysms of panic that the police would imminently be knocking on my door with allegations of impropriety.

The message accused me of illegal online activity and threatened prison sentences and enormous penalties to pay, unless with 72 hours I paid an £100 lump sum via a payment site called ekash. It seemed questionable, but with my computer refusing to return to normal behaviour, I started to think about paying up.

My panic levels were not helped by the presence of some kind of web cam, that made it look like I was under surveillance. I started to wonder what I’d look like in orange.

Thankfully – and, with hindsight, obviously – it was a virus that I had inadvertently downloaded. Googling (on another computer) revealed that it was “Malaware”, and specifically it was something called “Ransomware”, which according to the world wide web is Not A Good Thing. The ekash website – it’s apparently a legitimate company, but not when used in this way – explains:

Ransomware is software used by internet criminals to stop your computer working. They ask for money to unlock your files to return your PC to a normal working state. Ransomware enters your computer like any other malicious software, sometimes just by visiting an infected website.

Suffice to say, the advice online was not to pay, but instead to detect and remove the virus, which essentially involved resetting my computer to a time before the virus appeared. There are lots of sites explaining how to do that; one can be found here.

So, no police raid, just a nasty virus and a reminder of just how low computer hackers are willing to go.

The Granville Gunman and Twitter

If, as I do, you live on a small and rather insignificant road in suburban north London, it’s not an everyday occurrence to see said location being reported as the scene of a crime. Especially not when the situation involves a stand-off between a gunman and armed police officers.

But today my little tiny road got its five minutes of fame. It started with a tweet from Barnet Police, a tweet that piqued my interest.

Within minutes, Twitter (albeit a limited number of geographically concentrated users – it’s not  a huge road) was abuzz. The police followed up with an explanation: “Police had reports of a man believed to be in possession of firearm. Police are trying to bring this to a peaceful conclusion.”

The Shomrim, the Orthodox Jewish security network, swiftly added this detail: “Armed Police are restricting access. Avoid area if possible”.

And then the rumours went a-swirling, some factual, others totally nonsensical. According to various sources, including local press and interested onlookers, the lone gunman was in his mid-50s and recently unemployed, on the 14th floor of a block of flats. Residents were being evacuated, or refused entry to the road. There were police helicopters, television crews, and this little gem, courtesy of the Times Series newspapers; ““He put a bottle of Jack Daniels, a tin of spinach and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale down and said ‘There’s a little present for ya’.”

A few hours later, there seemed to be no clear resolution. I headed home, wondering whether I’d be allowed back into my flat, visions of various police dramas running through my head.

As it turned out, all was quiet on the Granville front, although the road was awash with policemen and, curiously, a fire engine. A police officer at the other entrance to the road said it was fine to go through. I asked whether there was any update and unsurprisingly, he remained tight-lipped. But minutes later, safe in my building, Barnet MPS tweeted again:

And so ended the drama of the Granville Gunman (as I hashtagged him), though the police will no doubt release more information in due course. A bit of excitement for the residents on a cold January afternoon, but nothing serious.

But the incident offers yet more proof of Twitter’s influence. As a journalist, I’d probably have found out about this sooner rather than later, even had it not been for Barnet police’s tweet. But most members of the population don’t have access to police press departments and many, if not most, don’t follow the local media religiously.

Social media does many things – and certainly, as today’s events demonstrated, it can misinform or spread panic – but as a way of getting information to the public promptly and efficiently, it’s pretty darn effective.