Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and Paddington the Movie: A time-saving joint review

Last weekend I engaged in two rather different cultural pursuits: I started reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and I took my children to see the film Paddington. Now, I say they were different (certainly I enjoyed one a lot more than the other), but there were some similarities nonetheless. The challenge to the gendered status quo, for instance. On that point, Paddington and Serano are as one. Yes, I know that might sound weird, but you’ll just have to bear with me.

Whipping Girl is one of those books that you’ve read before you’ve actually read it, at least if you’ve spent any time on feminist twitter. For me it was a bit like Harry Potter: I kept hearing the same things about it until I started to feel sure people were misrepresenting – there had to be more to it than bloody Hogwarts – but no. It is what it is. Serano genuinely claims that “while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudiced to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered fair game”.* She also talks about feminists “buy[ing] into traditionally sexist notions about femininity—that it is artificial, contrived, and frivolous; that it is a ruse that only serves the purpose of attracting and appeasing the desires of men”. She writes about “empowering” femininity.*** She also claims to know that “certain aspects of femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex”.**** It’s actually really disappointing. I did hope for at least some glimmer of insight, or perhaps a bit less misogyny (but what would I know? I’m too busy making the world sexist simply by pointing out that sexism exists).

Anyhow, as far as Serano is concerned, gender isn’t a hierarchy. We don’t have a problem with female bodies, far less a whole social system that is constructed around maintaining their exploitation. We’re just prejudiced about all things feminine. Hence the way to counter that is to allow men to embrace and engage with femininity and… Oh, hang on, no it isn’t. Men still don’t have to do femininity. Because they’re, like, men, and men and masculinity go together, forever. End of. Let’s just have a go at mean, exclusive feminists who bore on about their reproductive cycles instead of being sufficiently enthusiastic about My Little Pony.

So much for Serano. Now onto Paddington, and specifically, a scene in Paddington where Mr Brown and our cute, furry friend break into the Geographical Society in order to raid the archives. In order to pull off this ruse Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) has to dress up as a cleaning lady. It’s one of those traditionally “British” Carry On-style jokes that makes you wince – men dressed as women! Funny! Men dressed as women being fancied by unsuspecting other men! Hilarious! Rich men pretending to do low-paid jobs! Even more hilarious! Look at Mr Brown, a risk analyst, slumming it as a cleaner and a woman! No wonder he looks so silly! Because he’s a man!

As such it provides a neat illustration of how gender can be understood in similar terms to class. It’s unclear what makes Mr Brown a figure of fun the most — playing at being a cleaner or playing at being a woman (and, what’s more, a woman who is objectified beneath the male gaze).  Clearly, neither are meant to be appropriate for someone of his status — both male and upper middle class. Is it any wonder that little boys watching this might get the message that to be associated with all things feminine is to be a lesser person – not because of the things in themselves, but because of the obvious loss of power?  It’s a joke that works because there is complete confidence that the audience will find the idea of a man in a dress funny due to the incongruity of maleness (strength) with the trappings of femininity (inferiority). It’s not the dress itself, nor the make-up, nor the sagging stockings, but what they signify: woman as lesser being. Ha! Imagine being male and yet choosing to be that!

It’s no good to defend “femininity” as an abstract without acknowledging its function in the oppression of women. “Femininity” has not been scapegoated; females have, and gender is merely the hierarchy which reinforces it. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with lipstick or dresses (or any number of things which may or may not signify femininity in different cultures at different points in time). What’s wrong is the insistence that these are linked to the idea of womanhood rather than personhood. If we truly believed in disassociating so-called “feminine” self-presentation from female oppression, we’d be arguing for the right of men to be as “feminine” as women – and hence for “femininity” to simply become one way of being, unrelated to sex difference and the words male or female. But we’re not. On the contrary, the “man in a dress” is still considered aberrant unless he’s doing it as a dare or has hyped up the misogyny in order to make it into a comedy act. Indeed, the very term “man in a dress” is considered an insult, a deception, a shameful incongruity that is beyond the pale. How could such a person possibly exist?

This is not about hatred of all things “femme”; it’s about defending masculinity as a wholly artificial construct and with it male supremacy itself. It is harmful, and yet a huge number people who claim to stand against gender-based oppression remain obsessive in their defence of maleness as a femininity-free zone.  As Susan Faludi notes in Stiffed, masculinity is powerful but also incredibly fragile. Male supremacy rests on a nothing, a myth, trousers instead of a skirt, blue instead of pink (or pink instead of blue, depending on the times). Yet heaven forbid that we expose the sham for what it is. Let the Emperor wear his new clothes! Only a bigot would dare to suggest that he’s naked!

Mr Brown’s brave foray into playing the cleaning lady marks the start of his rebirth as a “real” man. By the end of the film his wife is picturing him as the heroic male lead for the book she’s illustrating. Phew! Not too many challenges there although you wouldn’t expect them. This is Paddington. Of course it’s cheerily middle-class, wrong-footed and conservative.  I don’t expect films about cuddly bears to challenge male supremacy. It’s feminism that should be doing that. Why has it reached the stage where sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference?

*  Um, no. People are pretty open about their hatred of pregnant, lactating, menstruating, infertile, menopausal and/or ageing female bodies.

** Again, no. That’s what femininity is. It’s not dresses, which are simply pieces of cloth; it’s people thinking that an entire class of people – say, females – are so frivolous that they can’t even identify their own oppression in the first place.

*** Tip: it wouldn’t be femininity if you did that; it would just be personality or self-expression.

**** Because apparently choosing to gender natural physical difference isn’t really a choice because reasons. Maybe some bits of our body are literally dyed pink – or should it now be blue?