Why Can’t We Leave Women Alone?

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Morning telly; the land that time forgot.  I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of how I ended up watching it the other day, but let’s just say I was feeling a bit ‘delicate’.    Anyway, there I am, second bowl of cheerios in hand when a victim woman is herded out, wearing a brown towel on her head and something resembling a monk’s robe to save her modesty.  Stood between two well-dressed (and probably well-meaning) women – one, the presenter and the other a stylist, the grilling begins.  It turns out they are all discussing the state of her wardrobe since having kids.  They ask her when was the last time she ‘spoiled’ herself with a shopping trip?  How often she changes her hairstyle and if she’d like to wear more make up.  They show a still of her in her ‘normal gear’, which, to the woman’s shame, is a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.  (No makeup – for shame!).

As I’m sitting there, wondering if my cheerios have been laced with some sort of time-travel agent and I’m now in the 50’s, they go on to chat about the woman’s job as a paramedic – which is good because she can wear a uniform to work.  I’m not sure they’d trust her to pick out her own work clothes.  The stylist kindly fibs that the woman’s wardrobe isn’t THAT bad, it’s just lacking in colour.  Why so many darks?  We can only wonder – but it’s clearly not a good thing.  The stylist goes on to tell the frumpy saddo  woman that she would ‘feel better in herself’ if she wore more yellows and reds.  ‘More people will gravitate towards you,’ she promised.  *Note to self: never wear red or yellow.

As the piece wore on, I found myself asking my empty living room, ‘Is everyone else seeing what I’m seeing?’  The silence was deafening, but my inner thoughts were loud – IMAGINE IF THIS WAS A MAN.  Imagine a man standing there, apologetic for his lack of sartorial genius and handing himself over to these ‘experts’ to make him beautiful again and more acceptable to the world at large.  Because, you know, Dads can really let themselves go when all their focus is on their kids and their busy lives.  Do men even have time to try out the latest make-up styles?  Although by now they should have mastered the feline flick, because that never goes out of fashion and always looks sexy.

Obviously, I’m poking a bit of fun.  There are men and women out there who do feel good in new clothes or getting a different hairdo – makeovers are harmless fun.  But why is it overwhelmingly women who are the targets  candidates?  It’s only when you imagine a man in her place that the whole thing becomes preposterous – so why are we still putting the focus on how a woman looks?  To be honest, when the segment started, my cheerio-addled mind didn’t bat an eyelid.  It’s normal for me to see a woman being talked through her shortcomings in the beauty stakes.  And that’s worrying.

For centuries, women have been the object of the ‘male gaze’.  This term, first coined by Laura Mulvey (feminist film theorist), encompasses the idea that, in art and the media, women are constantly being viewed and represented through a masculine, heterosexual lens, as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.  And considering the fact that a lot of our learned behaviour and beliefs come from what we read and see on our screens, it follows that women have been taught to identify their worth with their physical appearance.  Women are consistently scrutinised and shamed for their body shape, size and age.  And what this segment showed is that even the idea of self-care is being sabotaged by companies who want to sell you something and are using it as another stick to beat you with.  Have a spa day, a massage or a facial, you’ll feel better.  More pressure to be happy, compliant and pretty.

Why can’t we be treated the same as men?  Just allowed to exist without this constant pressure to be pleasing on the eye?  I saw a tweet recently about a daughter asking her mother why her pants didn’t have pockets like daddy’s and her mother replied, ‘Welcome to the patriarchy!’  It’s funny but it’s also true.  Why do men get to have comfortable, functional clothes and yet, as a woman, if you’re not suffering for your beauty, are you even a woman?  Who sets these standards and will we ever stop perpetuating the myth that an attractive woman is happier, more successful and just better.

Our idea of female beauty has been so restricted by the male gaze and the patriarchal constructs which have, down through the centuries, prevented women from being celebrated as anything other than purely ornamental.  Did you know that the great composer Felix Mendelssohn had a sister who also composed?  Nope, probably not, because Fanny Mendelssohn was not allowed to pursue her talent (a letter from her father warned her that music could merely be an ‘ornament’ for a woman).  There is an entire army of women – artists, scientists, politicians, who have been erased from the history books (check out author Joanne Harris’ #CelebratingWomen for starters), because the writers of history (men) made sure they were kept out of them.  So even as women ourselves, we have limited examples to gauge what being a woman is from a feminine perspective, because historically, our opinion of ourselves just wasn’t as important.  I really wished the TV show could have celebrated that woman’s intelligence – the training she must have undertaken to become a paramedic.  Her dedication, to her job and her family.  The beauty in her confidence, her playfulness when answering dumb-ass questions and frankly her bravery to go on a TV show and have people call out her dark clothes fetish, just so she could get a free makeover!

I hope that men and women can start seeing this for what it is and demanding better from the media.  There was an article recently in a woman’s magazine, written by women, asking if Meghan’s style was making Kate look like a frump and thankfully people were quick to call the publication out on pitching women against each other like that.  One wore a shirt and trousers, the other wore a dress.  END OF DISCUSSION!  Again, imagine an article questioning if Harry’s facial hair was making William feel inadequate?  It just wouldn’t happen, but we’ve become so used to seeing this kind of crap about women that sometimes we don’t even notice.

I read a great quote from Caitlin Moran that puts this whole thing into context.

“I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge,  whether or not some sexist bullshit is afoot. Obviously, it’s not 100% infallible but by and large it definitely points you in the right direction and it’s asking this question; are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s letting the side down?

Almost always the answer is no. The boys are not being told they have to be a certain way, they are just getting on with stuff.”

― Caitlin MoranHow to Be a Woman

We have the opportunity now to write a new story with a new narrative.  Let’s use it!  Let’s celebrate women for their passion, their talent, their creativity.  Women who, despite pressure from society, don’t look for approval; clever women, funny women, women who stand up for injustice, like the woman who stood up on a plane recently in order to save a man’s life.  Women who campaigned for reproductive rights in Ireland, who fight climate change, women who challenge the status quo, women who (as our former president Mary Robinson once remarked) instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.  Even women who stay at home and eat cheerios and write blogs.  We are all worth celebrating, regardless of how we look.

The Power

Missy Elliot may have been the first woman to rap about flipping and reversing, but in her book, The Power, Naomi Alderman takes this to a whole new level, writing a story of gender role reversal for a new generation, that has won her The Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction.

This is such a thought-provoking, insightful, clever, satirical book, (akin to 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale) and The Power has left its mark.  This novel has brought up so much for me, with all roads leading back to gender inequality.  A work of speculative fiction, this story seeks to redress the balance of power between men and women, and it is fitting that it harks back to biblical references for the founding of this new world order.  In Alderman’s book, young girls have developed a unique physical power, an electrical current, that can harm and even kill.  It has drastic consequences for our historically patriarchal society and asks the question –

What if the balance of power shifted from men to women?

This book has come at a very important time and feels like the culmination of a ground swell, that has found an international, border-free voice on the Internet.  I have learned more about gender equality and feminism from the last couple of years on Twitter than I ever did at school or in society.  Women are sharing their stories with hashtags like #EverydaySexism, they are uniting in their shared experiences and turning the tables.  If you don’t follow @manwhohasitall start now.  This twitter account expertly flips and reverses the entire gender issue with maximum effect.

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A whole new language of ‘mansplaining’ has sprung up, as women find a new vocabulary to express their experience of this man’s world.  But not everyone is a fan.

As the gender pay gap was yet again highlighted by a recent report into the BBC payroll, ‘journo’ Kevin Myers took it upon himself to blame women for the fact that they are paid less for doing the same work as men.  According to Myers, men are paid more than women because they  “work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant”.   As  columnist Fintan O’Toole pointed out, a woman can’t win with this kind of misogynistic mindset.  Myers claimed women weren’t as eager as men, but when they are, they are called cold-hearted bitches.  Putting career before family.  Power hungry ice queens.  It’s heartening to see sexist drivel like this being called out, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Myers lost his job because of his anti-Semitic remarks, not because of his misogyny.

When women protest for equal rights and equal pay, we are too often dismissed as ‘whining women’, ‘feminazis’, ‘men-haters’, when really, we just want to be treated equally.  Yet, for some reason, we just aren’t being listened to, or taken seriously.  Incredulously, we are being blamed for that too.  This is a recent tweet by correspondent Will Saletan, in which he referred to a video of a female politician, who was repeatedly ignored/talked over/disregarded by a male colleague .

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It’s this kind of ‘advice’ and twisted logic that, yet again, puts the blame on women for men’s behaviour.  Unsurprisingly,  women responded to his tweet in their hundreds and thousands, pointing this out.

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Ironically, he proved their point by completely disregarding their opinion, because after all, what would women know about it?!  He wanted women to be more assertive, only, not against him.  He could not see that using language like ‘women’s willingness to yield’ is dangerous and just plain wrong.  Putting the onus on the woman for a man’s inability to listen and accept that, no means no.  Classic.  But he was completely blind to the flaw in his argument, despite the fact that hundreds of women were ‘firmly’ pointing it out to him.  Instead, he referred to their response as ‘twitter rage’.  I guess it was easier for him to label their opinion as hysterical, rather than review his position, learn through listening to women or admit he was wrong.  So you see, sometimes you just can’t win for losing.

Like everyone else, I have been raised in a patriarchal society and have learned that this is just the way things are.  But that is the genius of The Power; by simply reversing roles, we can see that just because this is the way things are, doesn’t mean that’s the way they should be.  Tradition, culture and religion have played their part in forming our roles as men and women, the burden of which has been heavier to carry for one half of the population.

I believed them in catholic school when they said we were all equal in God’s eyes.  I believed them in university when they said we were all entitled to equal opportunities.  They were wrong.  In Christianity, God only speaks to the men.  God is seen as a man (say otherwise and wait for the sniggers).  Jesus was a man.  I grew up believing Mary Magdalene was the worst thing a woman can be; a whore and a prostitute.  More baseless lies.  Before her, there was Eve, that sinful woman who corrupted Adam and tempted him away from Eden.  The only other woman who features, Mary, got to be a virgin AND a mother.  Who could ever live up to that?  I have grown up in the aftermath of Magdalene laundries (a fitting name for ‘fallen women’), where unmarried mothers were banished to bear the fruit of their sin.  Not the fathers mind you, they didn’t get punished.  As we speak, there is still an investigation into the bodies of babies who were found buried in a septic tank on a site that was once a mother and baby home, run by the church and funded by the state.  In my city.  And this unforgiving, patriarchal union of church and state is also responsible for the 8th amendment, a part of the Irish constitution that takes a woman’s bodily autonomy away the moment she becomes pregnant.

My first summer job after college was in an office as a receptionist.  After a few weeks, a new guy began working there and thought that as well as a company car, he had also acquired a teas-maid in me.  It was minor really, I introduced him to the kitchen, the kettle and a thing called gender stereotype.  I say it was minor, because a couple of weeks before I was due to finish my contract, the boss phoned me and asked me to meet him in a hotel.  He’d booked a room.  I was nineteen years old, he was in his forties and married with children.  I was shocked, probably apologised for the fact that no, I wouldn’t be meeting him and wondered if I would get the sack.  He never spoke of it again.  I told a female colleague (who didn’t seem surprised) and we made sure that I was never left on my own in the office with him.

While living in Canada, I was walking down the street one afternoon to meet my boyfriend after work.  A guy on a bike came from behind and grabbed my breasts.  I tried to fight him off (my heart is beating fast now, just thinking about it), kept shouting ‘No, no, STOP‘ and after what seemed like a long time, he cycled off, leaving me stunned and powerless.  He did turn around though and laughed at me.  I’ll never forget that grin on his face.  It said, I’ll take what I want, when I want.

There have been other incidents.  Every girl has had her fair share of it.  I feel like I’ve gotten off quite lightly, to be honest, but even that way of thinking doesn’t seem right.  It changes your behaviour.  You become acutely aware of your vulnerability, so you always act with that fear in the back of your mind.  Threatened.  But like I said, I feel lucky.  Just a quick glance at the statistics for sex trafficking, rape and domestic violence on the Womens Aid website makes for sobering viewing.

1 in 5 women in Ireland who have been in a relationship have been abused by a current or former partner.

In Britain, one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.

There were 695 disclosures of sexual abuse made to the Women’s Aid services in 2016, including 316 disclosures of rape.

1 in 7 women in Ireland compared to 1 in 17 men experience severe domestic violence. Women are over twice as likely as men to have experienced severe physical abuse, seven times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, and are more likely to experience serious injuries than men.

90% of domestic abuse offenders in 2003 were male, whilst 93% of complainants were female. Of the 1,418 arrests made in relation to domestic abuse, 1,203 were charged and 650 were convicted.

Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders. Approximately 80% of these people are women and girls and up to 50% are minors. The majority of these women and girls are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.

And these figures are from the developed world.

Obviously, it is not just women who suffer from inequality and gender stereotyping.  I feel a lot of men are restricted by the idea of what it means to be a man.  People the world over are constantly discriminated against for their race, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.  How liberating it would be to be free from these limiting stereotypes and learn to see each other as people, first and foremost.  We all have different strengths and vulnerabilities, but these are not necessarily dictated by our gender.

So, this is why The Power is so powerful.  It makes you think, what if things were different?  What if men were made to feel how we feel?  What if women held the balance of power?  Would the world change for the better, or as the British politician Lord Acton once said,

Would absolute power corrupt absolutely?  

A recurring thought that I had whilst reading it was how women, with this new power, wouldn’t have to be ‘nice’ anymore.  Implicitly, I think young girls are brought up to be ‘nice’ as some kind of defense mechanism, so on the rare and wonderful occasions when a woman isn’t nice, especially in the public eye, it almost challenges the status quo.  We may not develop an electrifying touch at the tips of our fingers, but books like this can impart a different kind of power… the power to see things differently.  Imagine, for a moment, a world where God is a woman, church and state are governed by women and men are the ‘weaker sex’.  Is it a little bit frightening?  A little bit exhilarating?  However it makes you feel, it’s simply a reversal (albeit a science fiction one with super powers) of what is reality today for 50% of the population.

I don’t think women want to take over the world (who’s got time for that?!).  But I do think we want to share it.  And what’s more, I think there are men who want to share it with us.  More and more I see men calling other men out on issues ranging from sexist comments to gender balance and through campaigns like White Ribbon, a male-led initiative to end violence against women.  This is the future that our sons and daughters deserve, a world that they can shape and enjoy, equally.

Thank you Naomi for writing such an ‘electrifying’ book that has sparked my imagination and asked some very interesting questions.  And to the Bailey’s Prize, for championing female authors.  One woman who definitely doesn’t try to be nice and always seeks to challenge society’s view of what is acceptable behaviour for a woman, is Madonna (a coincidence or a sign?!) and I couldn’t help but be reminded of this song and video while reading this book.