Archives for posts with tag: feminism

Pisa

I think all this ‘leaning in’ and ‘leaning out’ these days could explain why my knees appear to be giving way. It’s like some kind of life-choice hokey cokey where career aspirations fly about instead of limbs.

My mother has lead a busy life, mostly dedicated to unpaid or barely paid public service, with some years of full employment and a period of self-employment thrown in. Her attitude to women and leadership is generally ‘Well, women have more sense than to want to do that’, which I’ve long held with. But I’m aware I may be doing women a bit of a disservice thinking that way.

I do start to feel a bit guilty when I hear about how girls need more role models who are going for the top. Is the reason I’m not interested because I’ve been conditioned not to be? Or is it, as I tell myself, my pragmatic tendency? Or my plain lack of ability to do anything high earning, high flying and people-leading?

Ultimately, I do think where my daughter chooses to go in terms of career heights is still ruled by societal expectations (yeah, go let yourself off the hook); that whatever I do there are forces mostly out of my control that have a say in this.

So what can I do to encourage her to reach for more when I’m not willing or able to go for that multinational CEO role myself? I don’t want her turning round to me and saying ‘Well if you think it’s so important for there to be female leaders, what are you doing being a lowly editor?’ Though I’d have hopes of at least being a less lowly editor by the time she’s capable of asking me that.

It’s an honest question and I’d love to hear any suggested answers.

She’s only five now, so currently any gender expectation are in something of a state of flux. One day she’ll be telling me she wants to be an engineer and ‘fix the green aeroplane’ (it’s at the RAF Museum in Hendon), the next she’ll be telling me she can’t go into space because she’s a girl, and then she’ll be reminding me that there’s no such thing as girls’ and boys’ toys, but I’m not yet convinced that she really believes it.

The problem at this age is that children are rule-based. They don’t really understand choice and agency, but they do understand rules. Hence doing something not girly when you’re a girl isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘atypical’ as it might be seen later. It’s breaking the rules. Those rules that tell you how to be a girl or a boy. I only recently realised this and remembered how kids at school used to say to me ‘Ummmm!’ (because for some reason all kids made the noise ‘ummm!’ when another child had transgressed – do they still do that?) anyway, it was ‘Ummmm! That’s a boys’ toy!’, although unlike other transgressions, as far as I know no one ever told on me or threatened to do so.

I have to say, it never bothered me and I was quite pleased to put them right on the matter of what things were for girls or boys – or rather, weren’t. It’s just as well, as it happened a lot.

In this way, my childhood was possibly the height of what little active involvement I might claim in feminism. I’ve gone on to have a modest but happy career, I did, I suppose, negotiate returning to work at three days a week when returning after my daughter was born (I say negotiate, but basically I asked and they said ‘yes’ in which I’m aware I’m fortunate), which I felt was striking some sort of blow for the sisterhood, as the more people ask and do it, the more normal it becomes.

Personally, I made a conscious decision to step back from the plate a bit while I have young kids, and just have a career I could manage with family, rather than a stellar one with aspirations to the c-suite by 30 or anything like that. But in the next at-least-30-at-this-rate years of my career where does that leave me? Do I follow the apparent female ‘rule’ of ‘Not Being The Boss’? Do I have to be promoted to the level of my incompetence or else let the side down? Oh, hokey cokey, indeed.

ImageThose men, eh? Always trying to upstage one another with sexier outfits. Always getting into catfights, and, my God! The jealousy, they just can’t be happy for one another. They may be sweetness and light on the surface, but really they’re at each other’s throats – don’t let that ‘brotherhood’ act fool you.

No, I haven’t heard about that either. The concept of female rivalry seems to be one of the most insidious accusations and weapons in the media to undermine high profile women. The underlying message, as with so many things is ‘Don’t take women seriously. They’re all hormonal and irrational and will only do silly things if you give them an inch.’ Yet I have seldom seen it challenged.

Where did it come from as an idea? Why don’t we hear about football players who used to be in the same club bitching about who gets the best table at an award ceremony and how they ‘don’t speak to one another’ anymore. The other month Grazia had a headline about how, shock horror, J-Lo and Victoria Beckham haven’t had a cosy chat lately. My God! Obviously they can’t stand the sight of each other, there must be something up. It’s not as though they’re people who were moving in the same circles for a while and one of them moved away. When a female celebrity says of another ‘We haven’t talked for a while, but I wish her well’, it’s reported as though it’s some sort of chilly, hissed brush-off, not the comment of someone in reference to a person who is effectively a former work colleague. Apparently in the female celebrity world,  if you’re not BFFs, then surely you’re deadly enemies, stalking one another through the press to make sure the other woman is not getting thinner/younger looking/more popular than you.

It’s a no-win situation for high profile women, of course – the more they go on record claiming there’s no rift between them, the more insinuating headlines you see about them insisting there’s ‘no rift’ between them.

This attitude sneaks down to the more prosaic world of normal women too – the press delights in stories about research that allegedly proves that female bosses don’t like to promote other women, that women in the workplace look down on other women for being fat, or thin, or ugly, or pretty. In fact, when you think about it, there’s an awful lot of reported analysis of what women do in the workplace compared to that about men, as though it’s still some sort of marvellous novelty that women have jobs.

I think that just about every major TV series than involves a largely female cast attracts stories of how the women concerned fight at photo shoots, bicker over dresses or are ‘furious’ that one actor earns more than them. You don’t see headlines like that for mostly male series. The message is that if you get enough women in one place, you’ve got a fight on your hands. What seems to be being said here, again, is that women can’t cope with status – men are natural leaders and gracefully accept the ‘top dog’, but women can’t deal with it and must take part in a neverending and graceless struggle for dominance.

In the X-Factor and its ilk, there’s a lot of talk about what the judges say – usually the male judges. But if there are two young women on the panel, well, then it’s a week-by-week scoreboard of who has ‘won’ the essential female struggle of being the best dressed, with reporting that suggests it’s platform stilettos at dawn for these two ladies, and no mistake. (See articles like this, ad infinitum) Note that it doesn’t happen if one of the women is older – she’s an old hag and out of the running, effectively, even if she’s Darcy Bussell.

I find it difficult to imagine that women are somehow so much more competitive with one another than men are. In fact I suspect it is about the same between genders, but whereas it’s socially and historically acceptable between me, if it’s women being competitive with each other, it’s shallow, jealous and destructive. Men, though, are healthily competitive, it’s in their nature and it helps them get through life and contribute. And if men traditionally achieve through competing, therefore women are supposed to achieve through being collaborative and all getting along, but not doing anything, y’know, world changing.

The media’s catfighting (or passive aggressive) women are unattractively taking on male traits in a big, bad world that their little ladybrains can’t cope with it would appear. The media will allow us our little triumphs in life, but it makes sure to keep successful women’s dignity in check.

I was at the gym one afternoon and as usual, there was a music channel on in the background, but on this particular day, due to some form of staff negligence, someone had left it on VH1 rather than the usual pop/R&B/dance channels.

Respectable dad-rock reigned.

Well, it was nice to have something a bit different, I suppose. But more than that, after a while I realised that I felt a sense of immense relief at not being confronted with wall-to-wall tits and arses for a change (unless you want to be especially mean about Coldplay, Kings of Leon et al).

Yes, nothing brings out the Mary Whitehouse in me more than the modern popular music video. Sure, in ‘my day’ we may have had Madonna writhing about on the bed, and alarmingly often, we still do (put ‘em away now Madge, dear), but somehow things weren’t quite so… gynaecological.

Eurohouse ‘artistes’ are some of the worst offenders for g-string clad bottoms wiggling in your face at lunchtime and simulated sex dance routines, but pretty much everyone who’s not carrying a guitar is guilty of it. Sure, children don’t know what it signifies, but one has to feel a little uncomfortable at the thought of one’s kids dry humping the furniture to the sounds of the Pussycat Dolls. I don’t hold too much against Lady Gaga, as at least her imagery is less about pleasing men and more about being slightly alarming, unless lots of men are secretly harbouring fantasies about having a slightly rancid-looking mermaid in a tin in their shed.

My most hated trope, however, is the stone-faced hard-man, rapping or singing unmoved while women existing on the clothing/lingerie borderline writhe around him and are roundly ignored. Even Beyoncé pulls this one in the storming ‘Crazy in Love’ – I mean, I know Jay-Z’s her husband and all, but I figure he still pays her some attention without the need for a revealing one-piece and a mink stole.

Someone will probably come along in a minute and tell me that I’m just being horribly outdated and ignorant and that ‘gyrating pop video bird’ represents a ‘strong and powerful woman who gets what she wants’. But I still think that whether that’s the result of carefully researched media sociology or not, young kids looking at this stuff will generally absorb the idea that men should be tough, rich, unemotional and clothed, while women should remove as many clothes as they can without getting arrested for it, and swiftly try to engage said men’s attention by rubbing themselves up against them. Then he might buy her a nice handbag or take her for a drive in that car he’s been leaning against.

So it’s not about ‘The innocent kiddies must not see the sexing!’, but the gender roles. They so strongly portray the idea ‘women give, men get’ when it comes to sex, and maybe other stuff too, and in a context that is, of course, immensely glamorous to a child. It contributes to girls feeling that they are supposed to give sex on tap, and boys feeling they’re entitled to it – all part of the so-called ‘pornification’ of society.

Few things make me sadder and angrier than tales of areas where gang rape perpetrated by and carried out on young teenagers elicits negligible reporting from the victims because they shrug their shoulders, believing that this is just the lot of teenage girls, or what it takes to be accepted. In 2009, after Chris Brown’s well-documented attack on girlfriend of the time Rihanna, several parents or teachers of teenagers commented to me that they were shocked how many teenage girls seemed to excuse Brown’s actions, with comments such as ‘Well, Rihanna does have a bit of a mouth on her, so she probably wound him up’. It’s a queasy mixture of messages that gets sent out to girls – be sassy and outspoken and opinionated, yeah! But at the same time, don’t make a fuss if your man beats you up for being like that, you probably had it coming.

While I’m not sure there really are ‘areas where  11-year-old girls assume they should be giving oral sex’ (thanks for that bit of moral panic, Mail) there do seem to be too many girls being taken in by the message that their sex appeal, their ‘being hot’ is what being a girl is all about and is the source of their value as a human being.

Think about a girl who doesn’t see women who are working, or empowered in any way in their day-to-day life. Which role models will naturally present themselves to them? Which women do they see as being successful? Girls without clothes on, basically. Be they glamour models, singers, or even the anonymous girls slipping their bikini-clad derrieres into those expensive sports cars in music videos. The trouble is, for most women using your sex appeal in real life is less about sidling up to a rich and powerful guy at a glamorous beach or in an exclusive bar, and it doesn’t guarantee you the designer bag proffering boyfriend. On ground level it might end up meaning the mates of your ‘boyfriend’ queuing up to have a go with you at a party – everyone wants to be popular, right?

This is not to say that this is all pop videos’ collective fault, that’s oversimplifying grotesquely, but they are a medium that is beamed into our homes or whatever we’re watching them  on at all hours, with little seeming to be taboo or ‘unsuitable for minors’ – the stabilisers on the bike of pornification, if you will.

And much as I dislike a lot of the imagery and messages of contemporary videos, I’m not comfortable with the thought of censorship, though maybe I could accept the idea of a pop video watershed, which might at least encourage directors to tone it down a tad if they want their productions to be seen at peak hours. Cameron and co actually did suggest a rating system for videos in their ‘Letting Children be Children’ report (ugh, what the hell is this approved idea of ‘children’ anyway? Hmmm, I feel a blog entry forming), but it has been pointed out that it would be pretty damn hard to police. And can you then imagine the excitement of watching the forbidden stuff whenever you want on your phone or your mates’ phone anyway?

I suppose we’ll just have to put up with a collage of Eurohouse crotch grinding and Pixie Lott’s bum-shelf for the foreseeable when it comes to music videos and hope our kids recognise these women as the strong female archetypes they are. And don’t mistake them for, say, unclothed women looking for alpha-male approval.

Victorian doctors just loved hysteria, basically the idea that we women can’t help our giddy little heads from getting all muddled by those pressures with which gentlemen are better equipped to cope. Medical authorities no longer accept this diagnosis, you’ll be pleased to hear – at least they don’t around my way. It was a nice little money-spinner in the days when doctors charged; your patient wouldn’t die of it, but treatment could still continue for pretty much as long as the doctor said it needed to.

People still seem to be making money out of this idea of women living on the edge, though, paranoid and overwhelmed over the troubles of everyday life. Take your average questionnaire in a women’s magazine, for example:

‘You weigh yourself and find you have put of 3lbs since last weeks, do you:

a)      Scream and throw your scales out of the window
b)      Eat nothing for three days
c)       Stay at home and not go out for the next 3 months
d)      Kill your boyfriend

‘You find a message on your boyfriend’s phone from a woman who you’ve never heard of, do you:

a)      Dump your boyfriend
b)      Kill your boyfriend
c)       Track the woman down, kill her, then kill your boyfriend
d)      Nuke everything from orbit’

I guess that giving options such as ‘Shrug your shoulders’ or ‘I’d expect there’s some totally normal reason for this so I’d not be in the least worried’ wouldn’t make for compelling journalism.

When you look at media aimed at men and women, one massive difference is that blokes are supposed to laugh everything off – hey, you gotta laugh. But women are expected to take everything deadly seriously and as having life-changing import – hey, you can’t let anyone make a fool out of you, sister. Your man is always on the lookout for a better offer, your bodyweight is always a few pounds away from FAT, that bitch at the next desk is after your boss’s job. It’s a mean world out there, girls.

And we can’t even relax on holiday or enjoy the run up to it, as apparently we should be going on a crash diet and strenuous exercise programme to look good in our bikinis, getting everything waxed and plucked, having salon appointments to prep our skin and have fake tan applied and then buying our perfect wardrobe to impress around the pool. I never realised holidays were such hard work.

We have the rest of the year to be convinced that we look like crap as well.  ‘We’ve all had “fat” days!’ magazines chirp chummily, ‘We’ve all had times when we’ve pulled out of a night out because we think we look awful’ they say, in sisterly communion.

That this seems to be thought of as normal, and not signs of seriously unhealthy thinking, perturbs me to say the least. It tells women not to worry that they hate the way they look, or that they think they’re fat because they put on 2lb last week, as everyone does it, so it’s fine. Have you noticed that women often talk about ‘getting fat’ when they talk about putting any weight on at all, even if they look exactly the same and are still the same clothes size? Even though everyone’s weight fluctuates a bit really and it’s perfectly natural. The press doesn’t quite use this language, but it’s there by implication – especially when magazines confidently crow on cover straplines about the precise amounts of weight that high profile women have lost or gained. And this is obviously all totally accurate information, of course.

We’re supposed to feel reassured that Cheryl hates her thighs, or that Blake Lively, or one of those other glossy American girls with interchangeable surnames and first names  has fat days, whereas all that says to me is that even with all their resources and training and diet of the week, these women still don’t even like their bodies. So what hope is there for a vulnerable 14-year-old girl whose classmate has just called her fat, even though she practically vanishes sideways on, when she reads this sort of thing on a regular basis?

Speaking of vanishing sideways on, I remember, about  10 years ago, Geri Halliwell ‘flaunting her toned yoga body’, as the press would have it. Looking as though she were incapable of actually breathing in, every picture of Halliwell seemed to radiate this rictus grin of ‘Look at me! Look at how well I have done in eliminating all fat from my body! I’m happy, I really am, lalalalala!’ It was all strikingly uncomfortable viewing. Halliwell has since gone on to claim that actually, she was not all that happy at the time.

Let’s face it, we are lucky not to live in a time and place where our every womanly malady is put down to overloading our little lady brains with stuff like reading or over-enthusiastic croquet. But the media does pretty well out of selling us back the modern version – that womanhood is defined by our inability to cope sanely with our bodies, our relationships and our lives in general. Hysterical. But not very funny.