June 2014


It was the free eyeliner that did it. After over a year of avoidance I caved in and bought a copy of Glamour and yes, it’s as rubbish as it ever was (but “hey, it’s okay if your new sandals require strategically placed plasters to be wearable”. So, there’s that).

Peak Glamour Rubbishness comes on page 91, with a piece by Stephen Armstrong on “girl envy” (yes, I know). It’s one of those sleazy, sugar-coated MRA-in-disguise articles that tells you “hey ladies, you’re so great, what with your ability to multi-task, always look perfect, bear my children and do lots of shitty jobs so that I don’t have to!” Gee, thanks. Always good to know my subjugation is appreciated.

The piece goes on for three pages, providing plenty of choice nonsense to pick from. My particular faves include Armstrong quoting a fellow journalist, George, on what women are like once they’ve had given birth:

Mid-life crisis? Women have no time for that shit. From the outside, pregnancy looks like a nine-month crash course in the meaning of life. We men, on the other hand, seem destined to spend our late forties seeking enlightenment in Lycra that doesn’t fit, on carbon fibre bikes we can’t afford, doing triathlons. Yes, childbirth might do us a favour.

Yes, George. That is EXACTLY what it’s like. Post-natal depression? Never heard of it. Unhappy mothers in their late forties? Don’t exist. And then there’s Armstrong himself on why it looks like we ladies are “having a lot more fun”:

When we see you across the room – through a bustling party, in a high-powered meeting, back to the table after 15 minutes in the powder room or walking towards the bed – there’s something about the way you move, your mischievous smile, the smart joke and the totally sorted view of what’s needed that stops our heart and catches our breath.

It’s at this point you start to wonder whether Armstrong has met any women in real life or bases his whole reading of half the human race on TV adverts and rom coms. Certainly, he doesn’t seem to think women have an inner life in the way that men do. We don’t have any of those messy crises. We don’t feel conflicted or challenged or incompetent. We just sashay across the room, spreading sweetness and light, making everyone feel better with our “totally sorted view”. Jesus Christ. Thank god we’re not actual real, live people since that would really make things inconvenient for Stephen and George. (more…)

I knew my sons were boys four months before they were born. For each, a penis was visible on the twenty week scan. They were not, shall we say, “modest”, which is just as well, because I wanted to know in advance. I wanted to be able to prepare myself, by which I do not mean purchase a vat of blue paint and a range of suitably gendered toys. I wanted to know what, in a viciously gendered world, we’d be up against: the conditioning that tells my children to be violent, unfeeling, dominant, unable to admit to vulnerabilities, or the conditioning that tells my children they must be passive, self-effacing, nurturing, mere objects for the purpose of another’s self-definition. I wanted to have time to think about how to protect them (but there’s never enough time for that).

My sons are boys because they have penises. They are neither female nor intersex. They are male. They are not boys in the gendered sense of the word: their character, emotional life, intellect and world view are not shaped by the fact that they have magic boy brains. I am not, however, naïve; I know that much of what is shaping their experience as human beings comes from the fact that others believe such boy brains exist and will treat my children accordingly. This is why, as a feminist, I am against what gender is and does. It might be a hierarchy which implicitly positions my sons at the top, on the arbitrary basis of reproductive difference, but it is one that harms them, too. They are unique, creative, wonderful little people, not “a gender” (what is that, anyhow? How many genders would we need to allow them to be utterly individual? 7 billion? What, you mean like having no genders at all? Don’t be such a bigot!). (more…)

Laurie Penny has a colouring book:

It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are other books in the series. Finding Class, for instance, where the child isn’t identifiably rich or poor and the person with the crayons gets to decide whether he or she has a pony and a yacht or a half-eaten bag of chips. It’s such a wheeze when an oppressive, abusive hierarchy can be reduced to a few self-indulgent, superfluous stereotypes. You could almost – almost – convince a child that they get to define their own place in a classist, misogynist social structure. As for adults … well, you’d hope most would have a sense that this isn’t quite how things work.. (more…)

Most institutions, systems and objects are created on the assumption that the default person is male. Assumed maleness shapes how businesses are run, how research is conducted, even how proportions for furniture are calculated. Things are built for men whereas women, ever flexible, must mould themselves to fit whatever is available. Should women fail to fit in – by having children, by having the “wrong” bodies, by being “the wrong size” – it is they and not a man-made environment who get the blame. (more…)

Safe spaces are not just physical entities. They can, and should, exist inside your own mind. The most intimate safe spaces — the physical boundaries of your own body, the theoretical boundaries of your own self-definition — should be the most inviolable ones of all.

Most women know that this is not how things work in practice. They have known it all their lives. Taught to be accessible and passive from birth — not hard, boisterous and demanding — they learn that their safety is partial and contingent on a lack of resistance. Do what the nice man says and no one will get hurt.

Feminism has fought against this, arguing that women deserve the space to be whoever they are, freely, as complete entities rather than as adjuncts to the male ego. There have been political outcomes to this (the creation of women’s refuges and family planning clinics, for instance) but also internalised, personalised ones (women being able to acknowledge that they are more than passive accessories — and in doing so learning that they have the right to say no). (more…)

In The Beauth Myth Naomi Wolf describes how sickness and health “are often subjective judgments that society makes for its own purposes”:

Women have long been defined as sick as a means of subjecting them to social control […] The Surgical Age took over from the institutionalization of female “mental illness,” which had in turn overtaken the institutionalization of nineteenth-century hysteria, each phase of medical coercion consistently finding new ways to determine that what is female is sick.

Wolf was writing about the cosmetic surgery industry at the end of the 1980s. This pressure is still with us, greater than ever before, but still we are finding new, more complex ways of diagnosing women as ill and unfit for activism or debate. I see this happening within feminism itself. It’s not just that women are told they are sick as a means of silencing dissent; dissent itself has been pathologised. You can be well, but only if you keep your mouth shut.

Terms such as bigot, TERF, whorephobe and SWERF are hurled at women whenever they do not toe the line regarding essentialist definitions of femininity and sexual passivity. It’s a means of discrediting arguments by suggesting that the subject is diseased, unable to think clearly due to multiple phobias. I think there’s a direct line to this from the cults that Wolf describes. Women who threaten the misogynist status quo by being active and demanding have to be put out of service one way or another. (more…)

When I was three, I knew that boys had penises. I did not know that girls had vaginas because no one told me. I presumed, as I think many do, that my lack of a penis was just that: a lack. Even later on, when I learned about human reproduction, still I found my role in it to be passive, that of a vessel waiting to be filled. The noble sperm battles his way through the harsh environs of Womanland, hunting out the ovum, who is playing hard to get. The continuation of the species depends on the sperm penetrating the boundaries of the resistant egg, or at least that’s the narrative spin that patriarchy puts on it. Woman as creator was never going to fly.

The reduction of women to holes, serving only to define those who fill them, is central to how misogyny perpetuates itself. Our perceived permeability and lack of completion is used to justify the marginalisation of women and the exploitation of our bodies and labour. Our own flesh and blood does not make us weak, but the metaphors derived from it – woman as hell mouth, moral abyss, cesspool, vacant space – have long supported arguments that women are not quite people. We tend not to voice these arguments today but the fundamental assumptions remain. (more…)

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