Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.


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The best songs of 2014

The year is coming to a close, and when looking back on it, there are a few significant themes. The launch of abstractmag.com with friends from university is something that I am very proud of – it gave me space to be inspired again, to meet new writers and help them find a voice, and to practise writing the sort of pieces that I enjoy most (“Will One Direction survive in a socialist utopia?” is my personal favourite headline of the year).

2014 was also a great year for women in pop music. Not only are more and more celebrities embracing feminism but their music is reflecting that too. From Beyonce’s foot phone to Taylor Swift standing on a horse, women finally seemed to get bored of spending their music videos looking suggestively (or sleepily) into the camera. Instead, they just started doing whatever the hell they want.

So it’s no surprise that when I came to write a “top 10 songs of the year” list for Abstract, the top five were all by women. You can read the countdown (and my musings on what counts as “good” music) here.

Happy new year!

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Could Taylor Swift be my next feminist hero?

With the release of Taylor Swift’s fifth album, Amy Adams celebrates the feminist awakening of one of the world’s biggest popstars.

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

Taylor Swift on the Speak Now tour in 2012. Photo: Flickr/Eva Rinaldi

With her fifth album releasing today, there has been a notable shift in Taylor Swift’s message. In the press she is known mostly for her songs about famous exes, and a couple of years ago the non-Swifty media had reached almost dizzying heights of speculation. Just how many men has she dated and what were the age differences? How do the exes feel? Straight guys must be terrified of going near her lest they become no more than a catchy chorus in her next single!

There was a time when Taylor Swift couldn’t even be seen making eye contact with a man without it appearing all over the media. As the rumours stacked up, the “maybe SHE’S the one with the problem!” vibe grew ever stronger. (God forbid that a woman play the field, ditch the men she doesn’t see a future with, and then sing about it. After all, it’s not like men have ever written scathing songs about their exes, have they Ed Sheeran?)

But in a world where the narratives of Taylor Swift’s relationships are seen as public property, I’m proud to be a fan of a woman who reclaims control of those stories through her music. No matter how much they are spun out of all recognition, she is determined to have the final word. So even before she self-defined as a feminist, I was still happy to put her in the “empowering female musicians” category and listen to 22 on repeat for days on end.

But things have changed between her last album, Red, and now. The most obvious is that Tay-Tay hasn’t been dating anyone at all for well over a year and a half. “I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” she told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore.” Instead, she’s made more female friends, moved to New York, openly identified as a feminist for the first time, and bought another cat.

Of course, every right-minded single lady in her 20s is morally obligated to love cats, but it’s the feminist awakening that I care about most. Since befriending Lena Dunham, she has been regularly talking about feminism in interviews and calling out sexism wherever she sees it. Significantly, part of that discussion has involved admitting that she didn’t always understand what the term meant, and that she held many of the same assumptions and prejudices that continue to make feminism a dirty word amongst the “why not rebrand it as equalism” crowd.

But as more and more female celebrities come out in favour of the movement, there’s a lot of talk about how they’re not doing the work of “real” feminism. All this standing in front of a giant neon sign is just detracting from the difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable work of ending violence against women and fighting economic inequality. Now, I don’t want to say that this opinion is invalid, because of course those are very, very different and important goals. Improving the lives of women should remain central to feminism, and I’m not saying that 21st-century feminist debate begins with Beyoncé and ends with Emma Watson.

However, I don’t think that this makes their contributions any less worthy or exciting. The fact that these highly influential women are speaking up at all is a shift that could sway the opinions of millions of people who are starting their own feminist journey.

It’s a step. They’re all steps. But when individuals take steps together, society begins to move. Gateway celebrity feminism isn’t taking away from more serious feminist activism. It’s just that: a gateway. And once we’re through, there should be room for everyone, doing lots of different kinds of work, united by a common belief that all genders should be treated with the same amount of respect.

Taylor Swift has been called the “voice of a generation” for years. But the 16 year olds who were once dreaming of a love story are now in their early 20s, and they’ve survived an economic downfall, political unrest, and a world that seems intent on tearing itself to pieces.

Taylor Swift is not the same girl who wrote a homophobic lyric in Picture to Burn, one of her earliest singles. She’s not even the same girl who subsequently changed that lyric in her music video, and stopped singing it in concert. In fact, she’s come so far that she’s now started actively queering her own lyrics on stage.

Of course, anyone who noted the the cultural appropriation in her video for Shake It Off will also know that she still has a lot more to learn. I’d like to see a feminist who hasn’t.

We’re all on a journey, and we can’t expect every new feminist to instantly know how to change the world – but we can welcome them into the fold, forgive them for their mistakes, and help them to grow.


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A good girl and you know it: the 21st-century Madonna-Whore complex

Pop music seems obsessed with good girls, but what does that really say about how male singers view women?

Drake

Do you wanna roll with a good girl? Because Drake certainly seems to. Photo: NRK P3/Flickr

You’re a good girl and you know it
You act so different around me
You’re a good girl and you know it
I know exactly who you could be

Let’s talk about good girls. I’m willing to bet that most of the women reading this have, in their lifetimes, been described as either a good or a bad girl. Personally, I used to fit so neatly into the good girl category that my friends would refer to me as “the perfect granddaughter” – and this is while I was university, where us teacher’s pet types are obliged to try on the bad girl costume while vomiting out of a taxi window at least once.

But what does being a good girl actually mean? It’s a phrase that is so culturally ingrained that it’s difficult to listen to music without hearing some guy crooning to a fictitious good girl about how he knows, underneath, that she’s actually bad. Naturally, he’s the one to help her embrace this side of her – with his penis.

In Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke is so sure that his good girl is actually bad, he’s willing to forgo asking for her consent altogether. He knows she wants it – she’s an animal – it’s in her nature.

Meanwhile, Drake is so obsessed with good girls that it wasn’t enough to just make them the hook of his biggest single, he had to get the idea into Beyoncé’s eponymous album too.

And just when I thought I was safe with 2014’s favourite breakout boyband, 5 Seconds of Summer, there it was again. There’s a whole album track about how “good girls are bad girls that haven’t been caught”, a line so unoriginal that it’s probably been lifted from one of their mum’s fridge magnets. And how does the hero of the song know that good girls are just pretending? Because he catches a straight-A student sneaking out to see her boyfriend, and she decides to let him in on the secret.

Good girls, according to popstars, are all hiding their bad girl nature underneath a veneer of good grades and coy smiles. All it takes is a man to bring out their true, sexy core.

And sex is always the line that they cross. In these songs, good girls don’t become bad girls by beating someone up, or selling drugs, or robbing a bank. They just have to fuck someone.

But where is the line? Sure, a one night stand is classic bad girl behaviour, but apparently so is having a boyfriend. What if you’re engaged? What if you wait until marriage, but you and your husband enjoy a little BDSM? And what about lesbians? Does their disregard of the status quo make them inherently bad, or can they still keep their halo intact somehow?

The truth is, this is a question that society has been battling with for thousands of years – since biblical times at the very least. The Madonna-whore dichotomy is an age-old way of understanding women. They are either motherly saints who should be protected from the world’s evils, or sluts who deserve everything they get. It’s an idea so deeply embedded in our culture that it manifests itself as a psychological condition, first named by Freud, which can keep men from seeing any women as real human beings.

You only have to glance at a tabloid to compare how they treat good girls like the “elegant” Kate Middleton to the more controversial figures such as “wannabe” Josie Cunningham. Bad girls are torn apart by the media – just look what happened to Tulisa – whilst simultaneously sexualised and lusted after.

The few good girls that manage to jump through enough hoops are then held on such a high pedestal that it’s almost enough to make the rest of us give up altogether. And while it’s easy for a woman to fall from grace (hey there, Miley), it’s impossible to climb back up again.

Let’s destroy the lot. Bad girls are only useful as sex objects, and good girls are actually all bad girls anyway. So what’s the point? In 1931, Virginia Woolf said that we have to “kill the angel in the house” in order to get anything done. Let’s kill the good girl along with her; she’s just holding real women back. Women who make mistakes; who like sex but don’t have to be defined by it; who have far more important things to do than worry about whether they’re living up to Robin Thicke’s lecherous standards.

“Good girl!” is praise that we give to toddlers when they count to 10 correctly, or puppies when they manage not to piss on the floor. It’s not an accurate description of adult women.


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The top five things I love about myself: why every woman deserves a list

Learning to get past your insecurities and love yourself is a long and difficult process, but the rewards when you succeed make it all worthwhile.

"Loving myself isn't arrogance or self-importance – it's the only way I know how to keep going." Photo: Amy Adams

“Loving myself isn’t arrogance or self-importance – it’s the only way I know how to keep going.” Photo: Amy Adams

“I don’t understand why I suddenly had a crisis about fancying women,” I was telling my housemate Ollie about a particularly weird night out. “I mean, fancying women is one of my top five things about myself.”

This – admittedly slightly outlandish – statement was met with confusion. “Top five things? Is that normal?” he asked.

“Yeah,” my other housemate Hattie chipped in. “Mine are like, four personality quirks, and then either my butt or my boobs, depending on the time of the month.”

“EXACTLY.”

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve only recently had a list, and I’ve only had the capacity to make a list for a little longer than that.

I was constantly told that I was a beautiful child, but like all women in the UK, by the time I was older I had been raised in a society which simultaneously told me I was too unimportant to speak, and too boring if I didn’t.

By 13, my nose had grown quicker than the rest of me, and one of the cool kids told me that if I sat on the back seat of a bus, I could drive it with my face.

It’s stupid – of COURSE it’s stupid – it’s a story I love to tell after a lot of wine when I’m laughing about how far I’ve come since school. But when I was sitting at that table at that age, I felt hurt and humiliated and I couldn’t tell anyone about it later because I knew the only normal reaction to such a ridiculous statement was more ridicule.

Those experiences continued, and when you’re young it’s hard to separate the idea that you’re ugly from the idea that the rest of you is worth nothing as a result. Our appearance is so tied up with our self-worth, that being a good person can feel pointless if you’re not beautiful too. It took years to unlearn the lesson that I was ugly and uncool and I didn’t matter. I had to move to university; I had to have my heart broken and survive stronger than before; I had to buy a killer red lipstick.

Loving myself isn’t arrogance or self-importance – or at least not entirely – it’s the only way I know how to keep going, and it didn’t come easily. The first time you look in the mirror and tell yourself you look hot, it seems like a joke. But you have to keep kidding yourself until it starts to feel true. Most people can find something they like about themselves, even if it’s just their favourite outfit, so there’s always somewhere to start.

And once your confidence is built up, other areas of your life might start to make sense too. When your own insecurities begin to fade, it’s harder to let people treat you badly, because you know you deserve better. It’s also easier to forgive and have sympathy for the mistakes of others, which are so often caused by insecurities. After all, you’ve been there. Now that you’ve got some distance from that mindset, you can fully appreciate how toxic it can be. And of course there’s no need to explain the difference that a little extra confidence can make in a job interview or on a first date.

“I know” has become my standard reply to a colleague saying how great my outfit is. But after a while, it became more than just self-affirmation. It became a mantra. I don’t just love myself, I love the idea of loving myself, and so should every other woman who’s ever been made to feel small. When I snapchat my face with the words “look how hot I am!” I’m not just showing off, I’m trying to set an example. I can never get annoyed by girls taking selfies because I just want to give them a standing ovation.

Women, wear that cute dress if it makes you feel great. After all, Christina said it best – you ARE beautiful. And the sooner you know it, the better.


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Coming out to my dad and the art that finally fixed things

On Father’s Day, Amy Adams explores how coming out to her dad first strained, and then strengthened their relationship.

"Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don't just come out once - you do it over and over again"

“Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don’t just come out once – you do it over and over again”

There is a picture in my father’s house of two dancers. The piece was at the centre of an installation by the art duo Faile, and presented by the New York City Ballet in 2013. It shows a tattooed blonde woman in a red dress kneeling on the floor, embracing the bare legs of a ballerina. It is a striking depiction of female love and lust, and it holds the central position in the hallway of my conservative Christian father’s home.

Any LGBTQ person will tell you that you don’t just come out once – you do it over and over again. Every time you open up to a new friend or family member it feels like jumping off a cliff. Even when it’s someone who you know will love you anyway, who already suspected, even if they are LGBTQ themselves. There’s a point you reach when the other person knows you’re about to say something important, when you know you can’t turn back but somehow you can’t let the words out either. There’s a liminal space where almost anything could happen. Then you jump.

And every time that person smiles, and nods, and comforts you, or squeals, and hugs you, and then gets mad that you didn’t tell them sooner, it feels like a parachute opening. You’re safe this time, you can enjoy the ride down – the view is breathtaking, why were you ever nervous in the first place?

When your feet are back on the ground, you remember why. Next time, there might not be another parachute.

Of course, it’s not always so dramatic. Sometimes they’re little jumps – switching the word “partner” for “girlfriend” when talking to a colleague, or holding hands in front of strangers in a restaurant.

For me, the biggest risk was telling my dad. We have a fantastic relationship, but we’re too similar for our own good. We both get to work half an hour before everyone else, because we’d rather wake up early than sit in traffic. We make the same bad jokes at the same inappropriate moments. And, critically, we’d rather do anything than tell each other about our feelings.

I came out to my stepmother a whole week before I could be honest with my dad. Living proof of the inaccuracy of fairy tales, she was nothing but excited for me. I had expected her to help me form a plan, but I could never have anticipated that she would be clapping her hands and bouncing in her seat.

My dad took it harder – I don’t blame him for that, he was raised in a strict religious and homophobic environment but he loves me enough not to let that get in the way. He couldn’t say that he was happy for me though, just that he would never want to lose me. That was enough, it’s more than a lot of people get, and life continued much as it always had from that point on.

A couple of months later, I opened the front door and was greeted by the picture – Les Ballets de Faile. The house has quite a lot of art, but this very beautiful, very queer canvas was given centre stage.

“Does Dad know it’s about lesbians?” I stage whispered to my brother later that evening.

“We’ve decided not to tell him.”

It became a bit of an inside joke. More comfortable now in my queerness, and out to almost everyone, I loved to tell the story of my dad’s slip up. If that comes across cruel, you should know that we’re talking about a man who was devastated when he accidentally rented A Single Man, believing it was a spy movie, and instead left pondering Colin Firth’s existential crisis as a grieving homosexual professor in cold war America. This picture perching brazenly atop the stairs was nothing short of hilarious.

Time passed. I graduated, I got a job, I moved house twice in nine months. And last Christmas I was visiting home when I brought the picture up again. It was a lazy joke by this point, but my brother looked at me with surprise.

“Didn’t I tell you? Dad knows exactly what it means.”

“He does?”

“It’s for you,” he said. “[Our stepmum] told me. He bought it because he wanted to let you know that he accepted, you know, who you are.”

And it all began to make sense. Of course my dad knew what he was doing – no one who collects contemporary art could miss the meanings behind them. If nothing else, he would have researched the piece before he bought it. I mean, come on – one of the women is literally looking up the other’s skirt.

Sometimes we have to find other ways of making the leap. Sometimes when you’re looking someone in the eye, the words you need to say just aren’t there, and that’s okay. There are other ways of telling someone how you feel. Offer them a cup of tea, let them take the biggest slice of cake, check their tyres before they drive long distance. Just don’t let your love go to waste.

Thank you, Dad, and happy father’s day.


NB. I sent this piece to my dad before publication, out of respect for his privacy. He came back with the following two notes:

“Firstly you should know that, while that picture is 99% a message to you, it’s in that exact position because it’s also a message to everyone who walks through the front door. Secondly, the joke’s on you because it was hilarious watching you all squirm.”


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Hannibal, My Mad Fat Diary, and mental health on television

We need more relatable and fair representations of mental health problems on TV, just as we’ve had with sexuality and race.

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal - a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal – a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

I love the TV show Hannibal. I love that the cannibalism is shot like food porn, that every line of dialogue can be interpreted in a thousand different ways, and that it’s one of the few shows left that’s gruesome enough to have me squeaking and covering my eyes like a terrified toddler.

I wouldn’t recommend binge watching it though – especially not alone. There’s something in the darkly surreal, theatrical spectacle of the show that, after a few episodes, you’re craving sunshine and candyfloss.

It’s not just the horror but the constant foregrounding and analysis of mental illness. We’ve been delighting in horrible murders on television for years, but when was the last time we saw a careful, thorough representation of a troubled mind, without its owner being portrayed as a monster or a helpless victim?

Will Graham, the show’s protagonist, has an “empathy disorder” which allows him to think and feel exactly like other people – a dangerous talent for someone who hunts serial killers for a living. Unbeknown to him, Will also has a physical disorder called encephalitis which causes him to hallucinate and lose time. Will also has Hannibal for a therapist – the combination of all three makes for intense and troubling viewing.

Representing mental illness on television is a step in the right direction. Last week, Jonathan Freedland argued that just as 24’s David Palmer “prepared” America for an African-American president, Modern Family’s gay parents Mitch and Cam prepared it for same-sex marriage. In essence, the world that we see on our TV screens is not just a reflection of society, but a mould for it. The feminist adage that “You can’t be what you can’t see” springs to mind.

I’m by no means saying that well-off psychiatric professionals are going to start eating their patients at elaborate dinner parties after an ill-timed season two marathon. Nor am I arguing that Hannibal’s presentation of mental health is unproblematic. But the show’s candid discussion of these issues might help prepare its viewers for later, real world discussions. As a society we’re long overdue an open dialogue about mental health and the stigmas surrounding it, but hopefully, Hannibal will serve as a conversational aperitif.

It’s an eloquent show, and one that’s constantly discussing how it feels when your mental health is slipping. In the very first episode, Hannibal gives a perfect explanation of an anxiety disorder:

“Our brain is designed to experience anxiety in short bursts, not the prolonged duress your neuroses seem to enjoy. It’s why you feel as though a lion were on the verge of devouring you… You have to convince yourself the lion is not in the room.”

This is a valuable description of the kind of feeling that millions of us face every day, in slightly less dramatic – but no less terrifying – circumstances. It doesn’t matter where your anxiety comes from. If you feel like there is a lion in the room, the symptoms are the same. And the more the world gets to see that in relatable characters, the more it might be understood when it happens in real life.

Hannibal has its flaws. Not so much monster-of-the-week as it is “psychosis-of-the-week”, the show presents a veritable conveyor belt of mentally ill patients-turned-serial-killers – not exactly poster kids for recovery – and the show’s indulgence in fantastical melodrama makes it hard to argue that it’s giving a realistic portrayal of these issues.

That’s why we need protagonists who we can really relate to – who could be us, our sister, or our best friend. Thankfully – finally – we are getting them.

Rae Earl, the main character in Channel 4’s My Mad Fat Diary, is a funny, sharp, and relatable teenage girl. While Rae’s struggle with depression and anxiety is the show’s main plotline, time is devoted to her problems with friends, her mum, and her weight, schoolwork and love life.

At last: a real character whose illness does not define her intelligence, confidence, or relationships, but neither does the show shy away from discussing it.

As a diary format, there are constant doodles super-imposed on the action, so even when Rae’s face remains a pillar of cool disdain, we can see what she’s really thinking. In the midst of a panic attack, the marker pen effect begins drawing circles around the edge of the frame, which get faster and closer, encroaching on her terrified face until half the screen is obscured by angry black lines.

I can’t think of a more accurate representation of that feeling – the feeling that the entire world is pressing in, that you could stop it if you were just strong enough, that you can’t see anything outside of your own head. The show also gives hope that you can learn to control those feelings and they don’t have to determine the way you live your life.

But My Mad Fat Diary ended in March, and tonight so will Hannibal (at least for a while). It’s great that two shows in such disparate genres are dealing with these issues in their own way. Like minority races, sexualities, and genderqueer people, people with mental health problems should be found across all of our media, not just gritty issue dramas. If parents are more understanding of their children’s differences because of a character on TV, then TV is doing something right. Let’s have more of that, please.


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Will One Direction survive in a socialist utopia?

How will the world’s biggest boyband fair when the revolution comes? Amy Adams looks at what socialism might hold for Harry, Niall, Louis, Liam and Zayn.

Liam looks concerned but music won't necessarily die out after the revolution. Photo: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr

Liam looks concerned but music won’t necessarily die out after the revolution. Photo: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr

There are two things I truly believe. Firstly, that capitalism is an unsustainable and grossly unfair system in which the world’s 100 richest billionaires earned enough money to end extreme poverty four times over in one year.

Secondly, that One Direction, capitalism’s non-threatening poster boys, bring more pure joy to my life than any other musical artist (except Beyoncé).

And that got me thinking – when the revolution happens, and we live in a socialist utopia free from poverty and inequality, what happens to 1D?

To answer this extremely pressing question, we first must examine what a socialist society would look like, and it turns out this is actually quite difficult. After all, who can predict how or when the revolution will happen? Will it be led by workers’ unions, the Occupy movement, or Russell Brand’s skinny jeans? Only time will tell.

We can, however, apply the basic aims of socialism to our current society, and make some broad predictions.

Let’s start, like all good students of this subject, with Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Everyone works together to produce an abundance of goods and services, which are free for consumption.

The most common argument against this is that humans are too greedy to share resources, and are doomed to constantly screw each other over for personal gain. However, as Harry Ring points out in Socialism and Individual Freedom, humans have already proved that this is not the case. Think about availability of water in developed countries: it’s abundant, easy to access, and essentially free. No one thinks twice about giving a glass to someone in need, and no one is hording it by the bucketload in their garages. What would be the point?

If anything, this is good news for Directioners. Everything recorded so far will be free! No need to spend money on the songs, or risk downloading them illegally. And no more irritating DRM issues when you purchase digital content from companies like Apple! Perfect.

And while we’re talking about overly controlling corporations – you can kiss those goodbye too. As Hannah Sell argued in 21st Century Socialism in 2006: “a socialist economy would have to be a planned economy. This would involve bringing all of the big corporations, which control around 80% of the British economy, into democratic public ownership, under working-class control.”

No longer would moguls like Rupert Murdoch control politicians and newspapers simultaneously. And Simon Cowell’s label, Syco Music, will be in the hands of the people. So as long as we decide we still want music from the boys, future albums might not be ruled out either – overthrowing record companies doesn’t mean burning their equipment, after all.

Now, I know that a lot of people are sceptical about socialism. One of the most common arguments is that Russia already tried it, and it failed. That is why a sustainable socialist future must be one based on democracy.

Sell explains: “Nationally, regionally and locally – at every level – elected representatives would be accountable and subject to instant recall. Therefore, if the people who had elected them did not like what their representative did, they could make them stand for immediate re-election and, if they wished, replace them with someone else.”

Once again, things are looking pretty good for the loveable lads. After all, they lost the X-Factor final in 2010 – they’re no strangers to the power of the people. So far, I’m feeling good about the prospects of having the cherry on top of my revolutionist cake.

The difficulty, of course, comes when we stop examining socialist utopias, and start questioning One Direction. This is, after all, a band that rose to popularity by exploiting young girls’ insecurities. Although What Makes You Beautiful sounds like a call to arms against the evils of a sexist beauty industry telling women they’re nothing without their products, sadly it just replaces one form of sexism with another. It’s the approval of men that gives your life meaning, argues the song – not make up or self-belief.

There’ll be no place for sexism after the revolution, or any other oppression of minorities. As The Socialist Organizer puts it: “With the end of the patriarchal family and capitalist scapegoating will vanish the basis for discrimination against gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender folks.” The same goes for oppressive systems of racism, ableism, and ageism.

But if 1D gain most of their fans by reinforcing heteronormative narratives in which women are no more than mysterious, beautiful enigmas for men to win, won’t the magic be gone? Half the fun is that when they make broad, generalising descriptions about what makes “you” special, they really could mean you.

It’s true: One Direction would no longer be writing songs which depend on a patriarchal system. However, as the writer and activist John Molyneux points out, art will not die under socialism. In fact, it will find itself flourishing once free from corporate direction and the need to appeal to mass markets. Creativity will grow, and 1D – if they decide to go on making music now that it won’t make them richer than other people – will be free to record the same upbeat tunes and catchy hooks they always have. It’s just that, as my good friend Bethan put it, they will “sound like Feminist Ryan Gosling set to music” instead.

Viva la révolution!