8th of March. The annual "when will we get a men's day?" day. I subtly indicated my impatience with the question last year, but agreed that there is more to be done in other parts of the world. That remains true; however, because stating the obvious gets old after a while, I thought I'd tackle the objection to feminism in the West today.
Surely it is obsolete? Women are running around deciding things all over the place; and not just what to make for dinner! Women are drinking as much as men, and we even get to have sex before marriage. Not to mention the fact that we are in universities and board rooms. Women, certainly in Norway, but one would think in the West as a whole, can be whatever they want to be, do whatever they want to do (within the legal limits that also apply to men, of course). Surely, we are home safe?
That is the trick. The legal stuff is, if not easy, then at least very obvious: you can point to it, demonstrate codified discrimination, and make a fuss. What remains is sneakier. People who make a fuss about it tend to be dismissed as hysteric women. And therein lies the problem.
Forskning.no recently had a piece on how Fem, a Norwegian television channel specifically directed at women, seems to broadcast an inordinate amount of nonsense (in which superstition and alternative medicine, not to mention crop circles, are presented as scientific fact), while the "male" equivalent shows science-oriented programs (even in fictional series). Irrational female feeling and superstition vs rational male scientific interests. Sound familiar? These same structures tend to come into play when feminism is dismissed: feminists are irrational and overreact to all manner of things, seeing problems where there are none. Presumably because they are female and therefore prone to emotional outbursts and drama.
The structures which perpetuate these images are harmful because they so easily become invisible, "naturalised". And they are difficult to counter. If you simply point out that they exist, or talk about the pattern, there is a high chance you will be dismissed as a "feminazi". I am hoping specific examples will be more effective. I want you to take the time to watch a few videos by Anita Sarkeesian. I am not just linking to them because I am finishing my PhD these days and therefore do not really have time to go into analyses myself: these are very good videos.
The first one is on the Bechdel test, which everyone should know about. It is applied to films. It is not a test which tells you whether a film is feminist or not. Not really. Nor does it tell you whether it is a good film or not. Or whether it has a strong moral message. In order to pass the Bechdel test a film must only
have at least two female characters (ideally with names)
who talk to each other
about something other than a man.
Before you watch the video I want you to take a moment to think about the films you have seen. Do they generally fit this description? If not, why not? After, all, it is a very low bar: it does not require the film to have strong women, female protagonists or counter stereotypes. Just two female characters, talking to each other, about something other than a man (it could be shoes! or babies! or their bloody hair). Even so, a disturbingly high percentage of films fail the test. Are men simply more interesting? So interesting you cannot be without them on screen for a few seconds? I find that hard to believe. And I say that as someone whose favourite movies almost all fail the test.
The test measures, not feminism in movies, but simply the presence of women in movies. It also indicates, albeit to a limited extent, whether women are characters in their own right, or simply there in order to help flesh out the male lead. Now watch the video.
Here is the video she mentions on the Smurfette Principle: the token, sole woman in a world of men. This woman will almost inevitably be defined by her femininity (while the men are defined by character traits which are not dependent on their maleness, like being geeky or sporty or any other kind of -y). The same tendency can of course be found in all other groups labelled "other" to the norm: black, asian, gay, working class... (pretty much anyone not a middle class, white, heterosexual male).
I also recommend you have a look at the other "Tropes vs women" videos. And you might do worse than read her Master's thesis.
On a related, but different note, I was surprised this winter to discover that Lego had become evil. I had long since reconciled to the idea of Disney being evil, but I confess to having thought of Lego as a friendly, Scandinavian neighbourhood business, with all that that entails. I played with it as a child, and I had great fun doing so. Evil Lego is therefore quite a disturbing concept for me. I was alerted to their new malignancy by responses to this tweet:
This is how Lego marketed to girls in 1981. Wouldn't it be nice if toy companies still marketed to girls this way? twitter.com/_TimothyPower/…
Women can, in our society, be whatever they want to be, yes; but if they are conditioned from an early age to think they want to become Barbie dolls rather than engineers, then we have a problem. Likewise, if men are conditioned from an early age to think of building and engineering, or fighting and exploding things, as specifically male, while cooking and feelings are defined as female, we have a problem. Not just in that men will define themselves away from "women's professions", thereby making society lose out on some excellent nurses and teachers, but also in that it will affect whether women are in fact hired for the jobs defined as "male" if they ever get around to applying for them. (On a side note, unlike Ms Sarkeesian, I do find pastel colours in Lego inherently wrong and profoundly disturbing; when did that happen?)
These issues, illustrated by the Bechdel test and the Lego controversy, are systemic. I do not advocate slamming individual books or films for being anti-feminist if they do not have a crew of warrior women with short hair and trousers, who liberatedly ogle men while driving firetrucks. That is NOT the point. Of course it is perfectly all right for films and books to tell men's stories, or tell stories where women have no natural part. Nobody would consider disputing that, (quite the contrary). Rather, the problem lies in the fact that there are comparatively few books and movies which do the opposite.
Or that if they do, they are limiting themselves and their audience. Male students who will not read Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë because it is too girly is much more common than female students who will not read a male author (any male author, say James Joyce or Philip Roth) because it is too boyish (is there even a word for the male equivalent of girly?). The male is seen as the norm, what can articulate the universal human condition; the female can only express its own particular, limited female nature. Consequently, books about women are often relegated to that most annoying of horrible categories, "chick lit". I recently had Casablanca dismissed out of hand by someone who had not seen it because he believed it to be a "chick flick". It demonstrates that it does not even have to be an accurate description to serve as a deterrent. I will now carefully step away from that particular issue, as it threatens to become a rather long and angry digression, which would include some comment on why J.K. Rowling is not Joanne Rowling. Instead, let me turn to a third topic.
You may know I have had a slight problem staying away from the Leveson inquiry these past few months. There was an interesting submision from a collection of women's groups, which starts half-way through this witness statement, after 105 minutes (there are also links available to submissions). If you do not have time to watch it, you should at least read this Guardian piece on the subject. British tabloids are worse than the Norwegian ones (no matter how many sex-shocks we get, there is nothing quite like the experience of opening The Sun and seeing a half-naked woman on page 3, who is not even presented with a pretend reason for her presence there except as an object of lust (unless you count the "news in briefs", which I think must be one of the more surreal aspects of British life)). Nor, I suppose, would you (in the mainstream press) get quite the type of language highlighted by Anna Van Heeswijk in the Leveson video:
We assume you're not even reading this because you're still getting a massive pervy eyeful of that pert ass going up a fake ski slope (around 127 min).
If I may be permitted a short, and I think relevant, digression at this point: if you watch the first ``News in Briefs'' clip, you will notice the general hilarity at the thought of Zoe 22 from London, rather than Rumsfeld, saying something on politics.
Why are they laughing? Granted, the opinions presented are often laughable, but I do not think that is it; I do not think people would have reacted with laughter if the same statements had been issued by dressed women at some other place in the paper (say, as part of a short survey in the street). It relies on the jarring contrast of serious opinion presented by an undressed, pretty woman. Tim Ireland claims in the video that The Sun has lately been deliberately exaggerated the pseudo-intellectual tone of these "quotes" for comic effect. A bit like parody, the distance between what the picture suggests she might say and what she actually says is crucial.
The laughter arises from the fact that the opinions expressed are clearly not the woman's own. There is of course nothing keeping women from both being naked and able to think; but these women are not there to think. They are there as objects. Hence hilarity. They are presented as empty bodies, objects without subjectivity who can be filled with the editor's opinions on current events. The women are not commenting based on any sort of expertise, only as naked mouthpieces. Pure mouthpieces, who do not bring any pesky opinions to the table which might conflict with that of the editor.
The women are not just objectified, the idea that they might offer a political opinion is itself ridiculed. (This is laying aside the equally problematic fact that The Sun is using naked women to promote dubious political agendas). Here is a discussion of the current Sun editor's defence of some of the things the girls have been used for. Digression over; I think that if I were to say any more about page 3, I would get too angry for coherence. And this is not about British newspapers. They merely provide one (very glaring) example of the objectification of women (although, I must say they seem to do so very enthusiastically).
"The objectification of women". It is one of those phrases which have been used so much they seem to have lost their meaning. I can see eyes glaze over as I use it, and feel the stamp of "radical feminist, man-hater" magically appear on my forehead. And then people stop listening. I blame (American?) tv series. The perception seems to be that anyone who ever talks about the objectification of women is an extremist who sees oppression everywhere, even when there is none. Time for another video, I think:
With that out of the way, back to the objectification of women. It is a real problem. And it is not a separate issue from the problems highlighted by the Bechdel test and the Lego nonsense: they all reduce women, either to particular "natural" interests connected with homemaking and "beauty", or to supportive cast in a male story -- or to tits and a bum. The woman as an independent subject on an equal footing disappears quite easily.
In short. Feminism is not about hating men, or about having to wear jeans and drive tractors and eschewing skirts or heels and marriage. Nor is it about cutting off your hair and having hairy armpits. It is not even about being female. Feminism, as they say, is the radical notion that women are people. And it helps to be aware of the structures which attempt to convince you otherwise. To help you spot us in the wild:
This is what a feminist looks like.
This is also what a feminist looks like.
Happy International Women's Day!
And let's hope we won't have to hear things like this and this in the year to come. Here is a tweet for thought: if mugging were treated the same way as rape. If you are thinking this is a different issue than what I have been discussing so far, you need to sit down and think it all through again.