Gender stereotyping


Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

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In life there are always difficult truths which, however much we’d like to avoid them, we each have to accept. Such as: we’re all going to die. The ageing process is grim. David Cameron is a total knob. Such things cannot be altered. We just have to make the best of what we’ve got.

But if that wasn’t hard enough, there are other things — things which, if true, would make our lives a whole lot easier — which can’t ever be proven. Such as: everything will work out fine in the end. Everyone gets what he or she deserves. Women are mentally, physically and morally inferior to men. It’d be wonderful if these things could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. Inequalities would seem to make sense. The world would feel a much fairer place. There would be no need to confront injustice because you’d know that, deep down, everything was as it should be. Alas, this isn’t the world we have, which leaves us with the choice of either pretending all is well or attempting to make things better.

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To My Sons

Today is International Men’s Day, a day upon which to celebrate all things manly. Being a mere woman / failed role model I’m not sure what all these things are (Top Gear? rewiring plugs?), so I’ve had to visit the International Men’s Day website in order to check.

There are, apparently, six pillars to International Men’s Day (how phallic is that?). These include promoting positive male role models, celebrating men’s positive contributions to society and improving gender relations.  All pretty woolly stuff which, if you squint a bit, actually sounds quite feminist (which is weird given the absence of women over the age of six in all the IMD stock photos). There’s also focussing on men’s health and well being (nice) and creating a better, safer world (which sounds ace, if not terribly male-specific). Finally there’s highlighting discrimination against men (that’s probably the most important one. Don’t ask me why. I just know it is). It’s quite a lot to cover in one day, isn’t it?

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Gender stereotyping has a tendency to feel like a poor relation to full-on, in-your-face misogyny. While it’s not ideal that Kinder Surprise eggs now come in pink and blue versions, or that girls now get their own, super-girlified versions of Jenga and Lego, just how much of a worry should this be? Aren’t there more serious issues to think about? And anyhow, is it really sexism or just habit, laziness or a bit of harmless fun? It’s annoying, yes, but is it all that bad?

Today I received the 2013 Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue and discovered that it, too, had fallen prey to crass gender stereotypes. You’d think that the gift of a working well or a fuel-efficient stove was pretty gender neutral, but apparently not. Such things can, with a little imagination, be split into “Gifts for the girls” and “Gifts for the guys”. While it’s harder for Oxfam than it is for most other companies (for whom men’s gifts = crap gadgets, women’s gifts = over-packaged toiletry sets), the company has nevertheless pulled it off. I’m irritated, yes, but I’m also slightly impressed. (more…)

One of the perks of being a mother is being able to tell a woman expecting her first baby any old crap you like. After all, what’s she going to do about it? Facing the unknown,  she’s hardly going to contradict you. You’re a mum. You know stuff. As for her? Let’s face it, she hasn’t got a clue.

Of course, this is a mean thing to do and you should, ideally, refrain from it (unless said expectant mother is especially annoying). If you already know how much uncertainty and self-doubt motherhood can bring, it’s just vindictive to set about stoking it up in someone else before she’s even got started. That’s why I can’t see any excuse whatsoever for Virginia Ironside’s current “advice” column in the Independent.

First of all, allow me to present the dilemma:

I’m about to have my first baby, but I’ve just been head-hunted by a firm that wants me to start work as soon as possible. Friends say I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband  – he works freelance and he’s going through a time when he doesn’t have very much work. Can you or any of your readers offer advice on what I should do? I’m at a loss and can’t make  a decision.

What should this woman do? Well, here’s my suggestion: don’t write to Virginia Ironside. She’s not interested in your life. She just wants to use it as a springboard for promoting her vision of Perfect Motherhood. (more…)

This morning I found myself reading a blog on the Independent about a very ungrateful bride, who mocked a wedding guest for sending her a personal gift rather than money. Or rather, that’s how the blog started off. Following on from that particular tale of selfishness and greed readers were treated to first, a rather weak attempt at observational comedy (“why weddings are crap if you’re a guest” sort of thing) and second, a full-on sexist rant about the sheer horribleness of brides, or bridezillas, to give them their properly sexist name:

The mistake too many brides make is to think that their wedding is a gift to all those invited and therefore they deserve remuneration. Their addled brains think their finely-tuned bonanza of self-indulgence is every bit as meaningful and exciting for her guests as it is for herself. She forgets that most of those attending are only there because it would be rude not to turn up; that if they had the choice they would be in the pub or at home watching TV with a pizza; that the only real draw to the reception is the free food and booze and the chance to see old mates.

Oh, just sod off, Andy West, and take your difficult transitions from the third person plural to the third person singular with you. Yes, weddings can be a pain, but guess what? Brides are not wholly responsible for all of the materialistic, trivial-yet-high-pressure expectations that surround them. Bride-bashing might seem like a bit of fun but in a pink-blue world where little girls are still encouraged to hold out for taffeta and handsome princes it’s not fair to then castigate them for vanity and self-indulgence. They’re trying to do what’s expected, even though they’re damned either way. (more…)

Poor old Daddy Pig! As usual, he’s in trouble. This time, however, he’s not broken his lawnmower / dyed his football strip a girly shade of pink / chosen a Christmas tree that’s too big to fit in the car / mistaken a field of potatoes for Potato City. He’s been found guilty of being a bad role model. Ho ho!

According to a Netmums survey, 93% of parents “claim children’s shows don’t represent real-life dads this Father’s Day” (and, one presumes, at any other time):

Almost half of parents polled (46%) slammed books, adverts and children’s TV shows like Peppa Pig, The Simpsons and even the Flintstones which show dads as lazy or stupid. Almost a third of parents (28%) claim it is “a very subtle form of discrimination against dads” while a further 18% were more strident, saying it makes children believe dads are “useless” from an early age and there would be an “outcry” if it was done against mums.

Misandry a-go-go! Or possibly not. This is, after all, Netmums, not exactly known for enlightened views on gender equality. I don’t trust them on feminism (or feMEnism, as they like to call it), so I’m hardly going to take their word for it as far as Daddy Pig’s concerned. (more…)

As a child I always hated The Family Meal. Too many arbitrary rules and too much meat. I’d throw pieces of food under the table, thinking no one noticed, then watch as my brother got pudding while mine was withheld due to the scraps discovered around my chair.

Years later, anorexic, I avoided family meals altogether. I’d hide away with my homework while others ate, finally defrosting Lean Cuisine in the microwave at 10pm. It would take me an hour to eat the half-portion I dished out, then I’d retire to bed, barely having spoken to anyone. (more…)

So Tesco define chemistry sets as “for boys” and dolls’ houses as “for girls”. I know this because justified outrage has flared up on twitter, but I also know this because, well, they would do, wouldn’t they? Most toy retailers divide their market segments by gender. It would be nice if they could stick to doing this in their heads and on their spreadsheets but they don’t. They translate their thoughts into webshop drop-down menus, pink and blue aisle segregation, action shots of boys wielding plastic guns while girls mop up the artificial piss of plastic babies. They do it all the time. Every single example should make us furious but of course, that would be impractical. So certain flashpoints – such as this one, and Sainsbury’s selling doctors’ outfits for boys and nurses’ outfits for girls – tend to shape the debate. I’m not sure it could be any different, but it’s interesting to see what irritates the most.

Looking at tweets sent to @uktesco it strikes me that people are far more angry at girls not having access to “boys’ toys” than vice versa. This isn’t a scientific analysis (what with me being a woman and all), but the consensus seems to be that science is ace and to assume girls lack interest in and/or aptitude for it is sexist and insulting – which it indeed is. Far less upsetting, though, is the idea that boys should be denied pink “girls’ stuff”. I find this in worrying in itself, not in a “what about teh menz?” way – my 3-year old son has and loves a pink dolls’ house, but I’m pretty sure he could live without it – but in what it says about how we value things that are artificially defined as “for men” and “for women”. This is clearly hierarchical; “men’s stuff” is better. Even so, I’d question whether this has as much to do with the thing in itself than with the association with men. (more…)

I am the mother of two boys. I know I’m not perfect but I do try to be a good parent. Unfortunately it appears that for the past five years I have been remiss. I have failed to “channel” my sons’ boisterousness.

According to James Delingpole – now the Ross Kemp of posh rightwing journalism – “we seem to have forgotten that boys will be boys”.  I for one am guilty of this. I look at my boys and think “they’re boys”. But rarely do I go on to conclude “and thus they will be boys”. This might sound like a minor omission but it’s not.  What it actually means – and this is a serious fact, because the Telegraph says so – is that they’ll grow up to beat the shit out of other boys. And possibly also girls. And maybe even household pets. Basically, because my boys have not been allowed to “be boys” (as defined by the Victor Book for Boys circa 1964) they will grow up to be violent hooligans as opposed to men of courage – the kind of men who win wars, slaughter beasts and present Top Gear.
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I wrote this post in a fit of rage-fuelled inspiration. Only kidding. I am, after all, a mere woman. What I actually did was take hours, nay, days to plod diligently through several drafts, listening to the creaks and groans of the slow-moving cogs that drive the female brain. Hopefully it’s therefore an okay piece. I mean, I’ve tried my best. What more can we women do, given that pure unadulterated genius – or failing that, just the ability to think quickly – is way beyond our reach?

I am a well-educated person – possibly over-educated, given that a) I’m a woman and b) I have kids. I have lots of qualifications, partly due to my class background, partly due to luck – but mostly, it could be argued, due to fortunate timing. After all, I took my GCSEs in 1991, only shortly after the introduction of the exam. As we all know, GCSEs favour girls. Had I been born a few years earlier I’d have had to take O-levels and we all know that boys, being innately clever as opposed to innately arsed to do coursework, consistently outperformed girls when it came to these. We all know that, and yet it’s actually total bollocks.
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When Google’s Sergey Brin suggested that using a smartphone was “kind of emasculating”, he no doubt didn’t mean it to sound as ridiculously sexist as it did. He probably just meant “it’s a bit silly” or “it makes you look a bit of a prat” (still not a great thing for a Google boss to say, but an improvement at the very least). Unfortunately, I and countless others can’t help reading his actual words and hearing them translated into the language of almost every boy we remember from primary school: “Urgh! Smartphones are for girls! Girls are rubbish and smartphones are too!” (to be fair, smartphones didn’t exist when I was at primary school, nor even your basic mobile. But they said this kind of thing about skipping ropes, so it’s plausible that they’d have said it about potentially outdated technology, too).
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In 2004 Hilary Mantel wrote a piece for the LRB on saints, fasting girls and modern-day anorexia. I read it back then and was not overly impressed (when it comes to disagreeing with Mantel pieces in the LRB, I was way ahead of my time). Looking back on it now, I still find the piece disturbing. Dressed in clever language, it’s essentially a pro-ana piece based on the over-interpretation of what anorexia looks like from the outside (rather like Rachel Cusk’s more recent “anorexic statement” piece for the New Statesman). The arguments are wrong but they are finely crafted and seductive. Mantel, inhabiting a body she dislikes, presents the female anorexic as someone who is able to “opt out” of the restrictions placed on women because of their physical form:

Most anorexics do recover […]: somehow, and despite the violence visited on them in the name of therapy, the physical and psychological invasion, they recover, fatten, compromise. Anorexia can be an accommodation, a strategy for survival.

As a recovered anorexic, I want to say “no, it’s not like that, not like that at all”. And indeed it isn’t. All the same, I read Mantel’s words and feel that I, too, have “fattened, compromised”. As though anorexia gave me ownership of my body and now I’ve lost it, albeit not as dramatically as I lost it once.
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Top tip for partners: If you and your partner have children together and there’s one bit of parenting you don’t usually do – let’s say it’s getting everyone ready for the school and nursery run – and it just so happens that one day you get to do it – let’s say you’re setting off for work a bit later – and it turns out it’s really, really difficult, do you:

  1. think “crikey, this is stressful” and make a note that while your partner may not have to start work as early as you do, that doesn’t mean life’s necessarily much easier?
  2. stomp about wondering why no one has got a better routine established, intermittently asking the kids pointed questions that start with “but don’t you usually …” or “doesn’t Mummy get you to …”?

The correct answer is of course (1). The second one does NOT accurately describe the way my partner behaved this morning, but it just felt that way. Because I’m stressed and tired and so is he. We’re really, really tired and even though our children are lovely, they don’t half whine about irrelevant crap. (more…)

I tend to blame my lack of experience with diversity on the fact that I come from Cumbria. For the uninitiated, it’s that weird bit of England that’s north of Manchester and west of Newcastle and not really identifiable as anything. We have the Lake District, which is pleasant, and Sellafield, which is less so. And then there’s livestock farming, which is intermittently interrupted by disease. What we lack is cool, edgy, urban diversity. Almost everyone I encountered while growing up was white and identified, publicly at least, as straight. Perhaps it’s changed (I left in 1993, to go to Oxford University, clearly in search of a posher version of home in terms of cultural mix).

Unlike all the cool chicks from Manchester, London and New York, I have never had a trendy, über-camp yet strangely sexless gay best friend to advise me on fashion and blow jobs. Nor have I (knowingly) had a bisexual boyfriend, which, according to the March issue of Glamour, is the new Big Thing.* Apparently “more and more women” are dating bi guys (“are they naïve – or enlightened? And would you go there?”). There then follows a personal story from a female writer who’s married to a bisexual man, plus – in case it still all feels a bit icky – a nice feature on “Celebrity bi guys” (which sounds like a game show to me, although I’ve not yet worked out the rules). (more…)

I am ill. My partner, however, is more ill. For me, this is almost as annoying as my being ill in the first place.  

I don’t mean to be unsympathetic but I feel that as a feminist, I am put in a difficult position. I don’t like gender stereotyping yet man-flu is itself a horrible pseudo-misandrist stereotype – one of those fake weaknesses, like being crap at washing up, which mean men get to laze around watching telly while women do all the work, at least in TV adverts. I don’t want to be in a TV advert. I don’t want to find myself playing the role of one of those Boots or Anadin women – the passive-aggressive little troupers who “just get on with it”, taking on all domestic work while caring for their poor, sick menfolk and ostentatiously ignoring their own needs (no, no, I’ll just take this pill. I’m fine honest. I’ll just take this pill and stomp around metaphorically juggling all my responsibilities while my piss-poor family watches and does sod all, the bastards). I find all of this rather offensive. Hence even though my partner cannot make it out of bed, I am resentful. Why should I have to do everything? Why can’t I get man-flu, too? (more…)

According to a piece in today’s Guardian, “the girl power generation are confused”. I’m not surprised. I’m confused, too, not least because I’d always assumed was part of said generation. Alas, it turns out I’m too old. Already 21 when Wannabe was released, I can’t be one of the “twentysomething women” who can claim to be “the most liberated and educated women ever”. So liberated, in fact, that they get to be defined by a 1990s girl band (the lack of a corresponding Boyzone generation can be taken as clear evidence that the pendulum has swung too far).

But wait! Said twentysomethings might be liberated and educated, but as you’ve already guessed, they’re still not happy! And not just because previous generations were awarded enigmatic letters such as X and Y whereas they got the sodding Spice Girls. Today’s young women are unhappy because too many people have written too many books telling them what to do. From The Rules to He’s Just Not That Into You, books have bombarded women with “contradictory messages” which leave them “in a bind, and without much help in figuring out what they actually want” (see, that’s what happens when you make the ladies literate): (more…)

Come Christmas Day, my three-year-old will be getting the pink doll’s house he’s been asking for for weeks. Or rather, he’s been asking me for it for weeks. I’ve only recently discovered that his whims seem to change depending on who’s around.

During my son’s nursery Christmas Party last week Father Christmas asked each of the childen what he or she would like to receive. Much to my surprise I discovered that “a pink doll’s house” becomes “a lorry” when other children are around. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t all that surprising. He’s at the age at which one starts to learn what it means to be a girl or a boy within a highly gendered culture. He’s starting to realise he’s not really “allowed” to like pink things, at least not in public. From now on his beloved Suzy Sheep socks are for bedtime only. (more…)

So feminists don’t do chivalry? Frankly, I find the very suggestion reveals a complete lack of politesse. I’m a feminist yet I’ve always been a friend of courtoisie. Indeed, I’ve read whole books that seek to define appropriate ritterliches Benehmen (I didn’t study medieval literature for nothing  – well, actually, it’s starting to look like I did. But still …).

The debate on chivalry has been “restarted” by an article in the Atlantic (a publication which I sometimes feel was set up with the sole purpose of rewriting Femail in Pseud’s Corner-friendly language). You know all that stuff about how feminists get really mad if men hold doors open, so then men get told off for holding doors open, then women – who are not the same as feminists – get pissed because the told-off men have stopped holding doors open etc. etc.? Well, it’s that. Again. “The breakdown in the old rules, which at one extreme has given rise to the hookup culture, has killed dating and is leaving a lot of well-meaning men and women at a loss.” Blah blah blah – you know the drill. Except – except! – there’s a sort-of social sciencey bit.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, a recent study has shown that “chivalry is associated with greater life satisfaction and the sense that the world is fair, well-ordered, and a good place” – so a world not unlike the end of an episode of Mike the Knight. Who could possibly be unhappy with that? Well, the authors of the study to which Esfahani Smith refers, for starters. What Kathleen Connelly and Martin Heesacker actually observe is that benevolent sexism – a term which the Atlantic piece immediately dismisses as a kind of Orwellian doublespeak – “is indirectly associated with life satisfaction for both women and men through diffuse system justification”. This isn’t quite the cause and effect scenario that Esfahani Smith would like to suggest. Still, never mind – where made-up social science stumbles, let’s throw in some made-up history instead! (more…)

I like to watch the clouds roll by,
And think of cherubs in the sky;
But when I think of cherubim,
I don’t know if they’re her or him.

The Cherub, Ogden Nash

I haven’t studied theology and I’m not a great reader of the Bible. Thus when it comes to the nature of angels in a Christian context, I’d say I’m pretty ignorant. I think there’s some debate about whether they are male, female, intersex or none of the above, but I’m worried this is just me confusing Christian representations of the divine with the above Ogden Nash poem. I’m pretty sure one was called Peter Gabriel and that Satan used to be an angel before the Emperor turned him to the Dark Side or something like that. But that’s about it. If you want a definition of angels (and you don’t mean the Robbie Williams song or the 1970s hospital drama) please don’t ask me. And yet, despite my professed ignorance, here’s one thing I don’t think angels are: simpering girlies in pretty white dresses, all trying desperately hard to look like Beyoncé while swishing their hips in a saucy manner. (more…)

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