You Can’t Always Get What You Want: Man-Friendly Feminism

I’ve made a decision: I’m going to stop prefacing my conversations about feminism with “It’s not just women – feminism helps men too!” This is not because that statement is untrue. Feminism fights (or should fight) for the equality of all genders; this includes criticising and challenging toxic masculinity,  fighting for the recognition and rights of trans* and non-binary people and generally trying to deconstruct damaging ideas about gender which hurt every member of our society. But I’m done with adding hundreds of caveats to the statement “I am a feminist.” Because, you know what, even if feminism was only about furthering the rights and equalities of women and did fuck all to help men, THAT WOULD BE ENOUGH.

The ‘He For She’ campaign launched by Emma Watson has undoubtedly been one of the most successful mainstream feminist campaigns of recent years. It attempts to involve men in feminism, in part by highlighting the ways in which patriarchy is damaging to men and also the importance of men becoming involved in the fight for equality.  This is all brilliant.  However, something about the whole campaign rubbed me up the wrong way and I think it was the idea that feminism becomes more valuable or more legitimate when men are involved.
As I’ve written before I think that, because of predisposal to take men more seriously than women, they are afforded privilege in female-dominated spaces. So when Benedict Cumberbatch wears a T-shirt with the words ‘ This is what a feminist looks like’ on it, he is hailed as a hero but when women speak out against patriarchy they are met with online abuse.

Often, doing what is right means doing things that don’t actually benefit you.  Sometimes,  doing what is right means doing things that actually affect you negatively or make you less likely to enjoy yourself.  Tough! Deal with it! Maybe being educated about sexual consent and treating your partner with respect means you won’t get to have sex when you want to.  Tough! Suck it up! Maybe fighting for equal employment legislation means your less likely to get a job, because it went to a woman or person of colour who was better qualified than you.  Deal with it! If you are coming from a place of privilege, what is right and what is fair is probably not going to benefit you directly.  But you still have to fight for it.

Learning Not To Shut Up: University and Valuable Contributions

Coming straight to university from A-Levels, where every essay and test feels like an exercise in hoop-jumping and producing an original idea in my work was unthinkable, the demands of undergraduate study were a bit of a shock to my system. My first essay for university terrified me: “What do you mean I can’t give you drafts and drafts to mark and reassure me that it’s all ok and on message before I submit it? And there isn’t a step-by-step guide detailing what points I should make in my coursework? And you want me to write my own thoughts about the text, rather than just regurgitating the opinions of the three critics that the examiners like? WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?!”

I think this might have its roots in gender. As someone who has internalised a lot of misogyny in her time, I often find that my actions are governed by my fear of being in the way, of taking up too much space, of occupying a space in which I do not belong.Then, one day, I had the realisation – boys don’t give a damn about that. A guy will sit with their legs spread into your personal space and wax lyrical for twenty minutes about a topic he knows nothing about. These are young men who are told over and over again that they’re bright and intelligent, and that what they have to say is valid and interesting. (I can only assume that what they hear is “It’s ok to have a long ‘conversation’ with a woman in which you only talk about yourself”). Recently, I sat next to a guy in a seminar who blustered confidently on for about 10 minutes about the film we were discussing, only to confess to me later that he hadn’t actually watched it. In the words of Sarah Hagi “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.”

Slowly but surely, however, I’ve come to realise that, y’know, I’m a person who has things to contribute. This came from just lots of little things: a seminar tutor saying “Oh, that’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that”, disagreeing with a critical viewpoint and finding the words to express why, saying something pretty basic in a discussion group and having the professor develop into an eloquent point about an obscure 19th century poet.

Obviously there are situations where the people with whom you’re talking know much more than you about a topic and it’s best to just be quiet, listen and learn but I’m trying not to make the mistake of thinking this is the default position. I am an educated adult with a brain and original thoughts and I’m not going to shut up.

Asexuality and Atheism

Disclaimer – this is probably going to be a sort of rambling personal post but it’s one that I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a long time, so here goes…

Ok, so let me set the scene. I’m about 14 years old. It’s Sunday morning and I’m standing in our local evangelical Church, which I attend more out of peer pressure than genuine religious belief, surrounded by fellow teenagers. This is, after all, the youth section of the church – trendily nicknamed A2J (Addicted2Jesus!). During some worship song or other I look around me and see my peers all have their eyes closed and their hands in the air, apparently completely immersed in an intense religious experience. I feel nothing. Later, I was ask my best friend  (devout Christian and waver of hands in air) what it feels like to have that connection with the holy spirit. She replies that she doesn’t know, she’s never felt it. I begin to wonder if there was an element of the Emperor’s New Clothes about the whole thing. The whole church community feels so cultish and immovable, however, that there seems to be no point in expressing doubt, it is much easier just to close my eyes, raise my hands in the air and pretend. This is not a particularly unusual experience, I’m sure, but it does resonate with my experience of adolescent sexuality.

I am asexual[1], but until I was 17 the only context I had ever heard that word in was plant reproduction in GCSE biology. The effect of this was to make me believe I was straight throughout my teen years (I’d had a couple of crushes on boys which helped me to feel like I didn’t diverge from heterosexual norms). I always just sort of assumed everyone was making up, or at least, exaggerating sexual attraction. Without wanting to meme unnecessarily, whenever people talked about finding other people sexually attractive I was like “….okay …..that sounds fake but okay”.  When my friends in sixth form would sit around and talk about hot people and “the things [they] would do to Chris Hemsworth” (and, disturbingly, in one case, “the things [she] would do to George Osborne”)[2], I would sit quietly and hope that no-one noticed my lack of participation on the discussion.

Although I don’t experience aggressive prejudice or discrimination as an asexual person in the same way that a gay/bi/pan/trans* people often do (no one’s yelling at me for walking down the street not holding hands with a sexual partner) not being a part of these so-called universal experiences can feel very isolating in a similar way that not feeling like a genuine participant in a dominant religious community can. Being told that ‘sex is what makes us human’ or that ‘faith in Jesus is the only way to live a spiritually sound life’ both had the same effect on me before I became more secure in my identity – they made me feel like an outsider.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this but I guess what I’m trying to say is that an experience which seems plain as day to you might be completely incomprehensible to somebody else and vice versa. Despite the widely held belief that sexual attraction is the one of the most base human desires, something that we all have in common, it is completely possible to lead a rich and fulfilling life in which not one twinge of sexual desire is felt.[3] Similarly, it is possible to lead a rich and fulfilling life without even contemplating religion. So, you know, that.

 

[1] I don’t experience sexual attraction

[2] This still makes me shudder

[3] This is not the same as celibacy, which is based on conscious suppression of sexual attraction

home.

i couldn’t open my front door last night. it took a full minute to realise I was using the wrong key. my house key, which was once so normal, seemed too small in my hand.

does everyone feel this drifting centrelessness when they return home? walking around the streets of gosport feels like walking through some old dredged up memory, mindlessly familiar and yet oddly jarring – so different than the physical frame in which i experience everyday life.

maybe it’s because i didn’t grow up here; there are only two short years binding me to this spot of rock and they sometimes feel as if they didn’t happen.

but devon, location of my childhood and my adolescence, doesn’t feel like home either. i have nowhere to hang my hat there; someone else is growing up in my house.

nottingham, my temporary hat stand, isn’t really home either.

i have called all of these places home but i don’t feel like i have roots in any of them.

maybe i need a new place that’s just mine, where the keys fit the locks.

i think i just need to make sure home is within myself, not without.

 

Be 25 and act 14: On the infantilisation of female sexuality

There is an episode of Mad Men entitled “Love Among The Ruins” which begins with several characters watching the opening number of “Bye Bye Birdie”. The male characters are all completely enamoured of Ann-Margret, the worryingly childlike singer, and Peggy, the only woman in the room, disgustedly comments that what the men are attracted to is the singer’s “ability to be twenty-five and act fourteen”. This really struck a chord with me as it did with many female viewers as it speaks to the way in which women are expected to be young in order to be appealing – from The Sun running a countdown to Emma Watson’s sixteenth birthday, to the age gap in Hollywood movies.

ann margret

Ann-Margret in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’.

One thing that caught my eye recently was quiteirregular’s blog post about the sexualisation of women in education. I realised how disturbing it is that the phrase “sexy schoolgirl” collocates in an acceptable and expected way (can you tell I’ve been revising for my English language exam?). The phrase “sexy schoolboy” is jarring and disturbing but the reverse is totally normal. This is also reflected in the portrayal of students of different genders on television (speaking in a gender-binary sense as the TV industry primarily does). A typical representation of teenage boys would be something like ‘The Inbetweeners’ (a problematic way of looking at masculinity but that’s a discussion for another day) – although the Inbetweener boys are presented as sexual beings, it is from the perspective of them attempting (often unsuccessfully) to pursue women – or as Jay might put it, trying to get “knee deep in clunge”  – and the viewer is supposed to be repulsed and embarrassed by these boys’ first forays into adult sexuality. In contrast, girls of the same age are portrayed as alluring, unattainable and above all sexually attractive objects.

This imbalance in the portrayal of girl versus boys on TV could because an unrepresentative proportion of TV programmes and films set in schools are told from a heterosexual male perspective, or because high-schoolers are almost always played by adults in their twenties and the standards of beauty in order to be allowed on TV are much higher for women than men, or maybe it’s just because women in wider society are judged by their sexual appeal. In any case, the effect is that school-age girls are viewed, if not as sexually viable themselves, then as theoretically sexy. I don’t know about the wider implications of this, but speaking from a personal experience as someone who left school only a couple of years ago this has a very real effect on the way teenage girls view their sexuality.  From a shockingly young age (10, I think – definitely before I understood what sex was) I was aware of a pressure (real or perceived) to present myself in a way that was sexually attractive to adult men – this is almost entirely because the media gives the impression that that was the primary way in which women gain validation and maturity. Especially given that I am asexual, this performance of sexuality was entirely for the benefit of onlookers rather than myself.

Sexy-Schoolgirl

Even more disturbingly, when things like pigtails and school uniforms become accepted sex symbols it directly affects those girls for whom school uniform is their life not a costume.

catcall tweets

 

All in all, the creepy perception that the appearance of youth is inherently sexual can fuck off.

Male Privilege in Female-Dominated Spaces

Throughout my life I have been mostly drawn, not necessarily on a conscious level, to the company of other women and girls. This has manifested itself both in an academic sense (I am a humanities student at a university which seems to have an overwhelming female majority), in my friendship groups, and in extracurricular activities (having pursued stereotypically feminine interests such as dance, music etc.)

It recently struck me (while watching a Darcy Bussell documentary about the advancement of principal male dancers in ballet) how differently men who are involved in these female-dominated spaces are treated than women in male-dominated spaces. As a general rule, if there is a dance class of 6 girls and one boy, the choreography of any given dance will place the boy front and centre as the focal point of the performance. I have witnessed this even pre-puberty when this is no real difference in body-type or skill set between the genders.

I have also noticed that in seminars and similar educational settings men seem to be given much more ‘air-time’ for their opinions or validation. There could be several reasons for this – perhaps the teacher/moderator is subconsciously trying to maintain an equal balance of male/female response, despite the class containing far more women. It has also been well-documented that women are perceived as dominating discussions in which they have equal or minor roles. (I caught myself yesterday watching a panel show made up of 3 women and 4 men and thinking, “Oh, this is quite female-heavy!”)

Furthermore, it seems to me that groups made up solely of women are seen as less valid or taken less seriously than all-male or mixed gender groups. Perhaps it’s down to internalised patriarchal notions of authority being associated with typically masculine traits (a deep voice or a large, imposing body) or perhaps it’s that men are socialised to be more confident and believe that what they say is worth saying (this is, I think, also what leads to me being seen as more ‘naturally charismatic’).

Anyway, those were just some thoughts while I put off writing my essays. Please leave any insights etc. in the comments 🙂

Constructed Identity: Some Reflections Six Weeks Into First Year

I remember once in Year 12 I was talking to a group of boys in my history class about an upcoming party and at some point in the conversation I was asked what alcohol I would bring. I replied “I don’t drink”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being teetotal – I, however, am not. What I meant was “I have never been invited to the sort of party where people drink before and I am absolutely terrified.” But of course that is not the sort of thing you say to people who have the air of being a bit cooler than you – so I quickly cemented the image of myself as a principled teetotaler and professional dullard.

Two years later, I’m six weeks into my first term at university and sporting the permanent grin of someone who has broken out of the box they built around them self. It’s fucking awesome! (I’m allowed to say ‘fucking’ now because I’m not  the quiet girl who sits in the corner and occasionally helps you with your homework anymore). Side-note: it’s really fun to subvert gendered and social expectations of your language use – once in an unproductive drama rehearsal I frustratedly shouted “Just do the fucking scene!” and the entire room went silent and turned to look at me in shock.

Cliche as it is, finally living somewhere where I have to make all my decisions by myself  made me question why I was making the decisions that involved staying at home and not making friends or having fun – and I had no answer. I just did it because it seemed like the sort of thing I would do. That is a singularly terrible excuse for not going to Oceana of a Monday night (there are, incidentally, plenty of perfectly good reasons not to go to Oceana of a Monday night!) I discovered that if I wanted to join the bar-tending society or the pole dancing society instead of the student magazine or the Harry Potter society than that’s fine and nobody’s going to stop me at the door!

I think this problem of self imposed restrictions has some overlap with what I call ‘defensive superiority’ in the nerd community. Nerds are often at the bottom of the social order in school environments and as a response create communities (especially online) to reclaim and celebrate their identity. This is a great thing, but can often lead to the nerds becoming the bullies which they have tried to distance themselves from. It’s a sort of “You’ll be working for me one day” mentality which paints ‘The Populars’ as other/lesser and can often lead to misogynistic and other problematic attitudes within online communities which disproportionately value the white, straight male. For example, many nerdy communities often reject women as “not real nerds” or faking an interest in order to attract male attention!

(This attitude is demonstrated by The Guild’s tongue-in-cheek song ‘I’m The One That’s Cool’)

Anyway, to bring this incoherent rambling to some sort of conclusion, I am loving life since I discovered that clubs are not Terrifying Places where Cool People hang out, they are loud rooms where nobody else can dance either. Likewise, if you want to go to a party then, congratulations, you are now “the sort of person that goes to parties” and there’s nothing wrong with that! Do what you enjoy and don’t worry about whether it fits the label you have assigned yourself!