Since I was first introduced to Stephen Marche’s confused ramblings in “The Contempt of Women” (Esquire), many more seasoned bloggers have taken a stab at decoding the baffling drivel that is his take on twenty-first century gender-relations.   Marche’s arguments are hard to crack, on the one hand he seems to be arguing that, based on a few contemptuous looks, a handful of pop characters (ranging from Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele to Peter Griffin off Family Guy) and a comment by Michelle Obama- that her husband is ‘just a man’- the world of men is under attack. This he states, is further evidenced by a ‘rise of women’ epitomized by girl-power, women with more university degrees and female violence, as well as Christine Lagarde’s fiscal policy, and an unreferenced claim that in parts of the US “rapes have declined to such a low number that they can’t be charted”. Yet parallel to this male ‘undoing’ by organized whinos (aka feminists), Marche’s argument continues that there is nevertheless no crisis of masculinity, men are still getting more jobs in the climb out of recession and women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive, so there is in fact no real sign of matriarchy after all.

A brief, yet wonderful appraisal of Marches’ garbage was made by Alyssa Rosenberg from ThinkProgress, while Jezebel’s Lindy West took the article apart piece by piece addressing the wild mismatch between arguments. Many more commentators could be added to the list- worthy of passing reference was the response posted on askmen.com. As such I feel the moment passed for me to add my thoughts to the mix, but there are wider issues that Marche’s article can allow me to segue into by virtue of his closing remarks:

“Statistics showing the rise of women and fall of men are sobering, but Rosin is really only pointing out trends — when and if and how they translate into real-world power is vague. And as she concedes, women account for only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 17 percent of members of Congress, and 20 of the 180 heads of state. Matriarchy? Really? No. The world’s leading exporter of absurdity has shown the way: Women in Saudi Arabia earn more than half of all undergraduate and doctoral degrees — then they have to be driven to their jobs”.

That Marche fails to see the absurdity of proving his disjointed claims about gender relations in US pop culture with reference to Saudi Arabia merely evidences the overall shallowness of his arguments. It all just seems to say “You may sneer at us men on the subway but you’ve got no real power and in some parts of the world you don’t even have the right to drive, HA!” Well-done Marche.

The ‘rise of women’ that Marche focuses on, has indeed failed to provide women worldwide with a tangible foothold in what remains a male dominated world, and despite occasional success stories many women have been unable to tap into the existing hierarchy.

Invariably held up as examples of success, and pioneers on a path we’re all bound to follow, are those women who make it to very the top of their respective fields. Lindy West deplores the absence of a female President in the US, but in Britain we elected Margaret Thatcher to power, whilst in India Indira Gandhi was also twice elected Prime Minister, today, out of the G20 Nations,  they are rated 3rd, and last respectively in the Reuters ranking of the best-worst countries to be a women (the US came 6th). According to feminist writer/blogger Natasha Walter women’s achievements- such as Thatcher’s election- are inherently positive in the way that they “normalize female success” (The New Feminism). Both Thatcher and Gandhi denied any association with gendered politics, Indira Gandhi repeatedly and publicly denied having anything to do with feminism. Yet where Thatcher did naught at any stage of her political life to forward gender equality, Gandhi had great solidarity with women whom she called “the biggest oppressed minority in the world” and for whom she did seek better social standing and security. There have only been some 55 odd women Prime Ministers around the world since 1945, by 2010 women made up a glorious 18% of parliaments worldwide, and the numbers haven’t changed much. And yet this focus at the top, about the number of women CEOs and top politicians can only go so far for most women-to see women making up 50% of the top dogs is already long overdue, but those at the top still only represent a tiny fractions of any population. (And even then they are by-and-large representative of dominant ethnicities.)

Perhaps a little more focus needs to go on providing a level playing field for the majority- in access to education, jobs, healthcare and a fulfilling life- which would naturally allow for more women to make that final leap to the ‘big leagues’. While more women in Government in the US may mean less legislating of our vaginas and reproductive organs, the threat to the same in the UK came from a female MP. While 1 in 10 Fortune 500 companies have no women on their boards there will clearly be problems enforcing fairer work structures, but first we need to get women into the job market. In the UK, women represent 65% of the labour force, in India women make up just 36% of the work force- officially at least.
The barriers that women face in achieving the top can’t just be down to the old boys club up there, rather our entire employment framework is at odds with women. Built around the trajectory of a man, from education to marriage to kids (taken care of by some one else of course) to retirements, general career progression seems to line up with when women are getting married (slightly younger than men) and having kids. In India where 45% of women are married before the age of 18, and the use of contraception/reproductive rights are still foreign to great swaths of  the population its hardly surprising that the possibility of a job, let alone a career! Add to that the fact that most girls begin helping with household chores (from fetching water/ firewood/ caring for siblings) the moment they are physically able, in a way that simply isn’t mirrored by boys and the model in developing countries keeps so many of that first rung.

There should be no barriers, especially in gender, for those capable to reach the top, and women should continue to strive for the top rungs, but for most of us- men and women- that isn’t the reality, rather our concerns are over having the safety, education, financial security, freedom and independence to lead fulfilling lives. And to have those, we have to change the way we as women look at ourselves, the way men look at us, and the way we view male-female interactions.

When a tool like Marche goes on about the ‘awful’ portrayal of men in pop-culture as grotesque, stupid and lazy he clearly has his blinders on. The virgin/whore scenario is everywhere, for women being an idiot is cute and endearing (eg. The Big Bang Theory), and we women are supposed to agree. Bart Simpson and Peter Griffin are still the ‘heads’ of their respective households, and despite their flaws the women in their lives tut-tut and stand by, and that’s not even touching on the like of Two and a Half Men. A healthy portrayal of either sex is hardly the norm in pop culture, but the standard set for men is hardly as contemptuous the behaviour normalized vis-a-vis women. And that’s before you get to the ads, as another blogger rebuked Marche with regards advertisements for household products, a clumsy, fool of a man may make the mess- but its always the woman cleaning it up. (Had a giggle at this parody). After all, such paradigms are pervasive from childhood to adulthood from Disney movies to Hollywood and beyond. I’m not saying the depiction of men in the media can’t be burdensome, but as pop-culture critics such as Anita Sarkeesian have shown, women continue to be afforded a supporting roles, in which their entire identity remains wrapped up in a man- even in so called ‘chick-flicks’ one struggles to find 60seconds where two named characters speak to each other about ANYTHING other than men. Go ahead and try. Do the same in reverse and you discover how easy it is to find a script that gives a man the chance to engage in a world beyond women.

But then we have still have it pretty good, it’s still possible to laugh these things off or (god forbid) express our contempt for them. By comparison, in India women are still considered property. This is not meant as hyperbole, rather it has been a dominant legal issue. In the 60s a major problem arose (Especially within the Hindu Community) when the Indian PM legislated that women could own property; If women were property, and how could property own property? To this day many rural communities deny women their rights to land when their male relatives die, or when their husbands divorce them. Another major issues remains the dowry, even in progressive households with university-educated women. Alongside endemic female infanticide, dowry disputes evidence the attitude that women are a liability to be discharged by marriage, and that additional payment is required to the groom’s family to make the exchange worthwhile.

If we are going to have an honest discussion of the defining features of gender relations in the twenty first century, then perhaps we need to take a closer look at the role of women as a ‘burden’ or ‘prize’.

A young colleague studying law in Delhi regaled us lately with the tale of a young man who asked her out and when she politely declined, produced his bank statement, smiled and asked again- she says it took her a few moments to fully grasp the implication, did he take her for some kind of prostitute? No. But his value to her should be measured on how much he was worth and with that how he would deign to take care of her. As a fellow student he was fully aware that she was an excellent student, but her independence, her potential to chose a man on anything other than his social status or wealth, was completely foreign to him. In London it may not be so blatant, but similar attitudes can be gleaned from the behaviour of certain city boys who see their suits and ability to buy you drinks as a passport to your bed.

If we are to have the kind of equality that affords respect to both men and women then we have to have an attitudinal shift. Men like Marche miss the point completely when they see gender-based politics as a women-only whinge intent on ruining men. The fact that men are able to hear female discontent in the west may make him uncomfortable, but this is a major step forward. To be able to speak up and paint three-dimensional pictures of women, for women to be permitted flaws and value independent of the men in their lives is fledgling even in the west, but it’s a start. I am weary of painting the west as a beacon of hope for developing countries, but strides in women’s independence do not go unnoticed by those seeking a way forward to themselves. Our myopic views of our own ‘success’, our own ‘rise’, can cloud how fragile these advances can be, if we are to find equality then men have to be a part of the way forward.

In countries with a huge gender gap a crucial component remains financial independence, where women can earn a living they are no longer hitched to men and can make proactive choices- if a women can choose to leave, men are better held to account. And such problems are not completely foreign to the west! Sexual violence and domestic abuse remain huge problems, the trivialisation of girls is widespread and job security is a particular issue for single parents who are by-and-large women. While we teach our girls that ‘having it all’ will be a careful but achievable balancing act involving a great deal of hard work and sacrifice, are we teaching our boys the same?

Marche’s 1000 words of whinge are worthy of contempt, his whole convoluted article was contemptuous, to produce such a one dimensional picture of women’s contributions to popular culture and social debate is just plain lazy.

(For a brief yet comprehensive overview of women’s property rights in India: click)

One thought on “‘The contempt of Women’ and some real issues of disdain

  1. A friend and fellow feminist Gillian, upon reading the above, called me on the use of the generic “having it all” remark we use all too easily. It’s not an unproblematic term. As for the balancing act, I was listening to an interview a few months ago on BBC Radio 4 (I think) with some veteran female journalists and they were discussing the way they deal with their children’s aspirations, all agreeing that they tell their girls they can have a career and kids but that you have to make sacrifices, and the interview asked her, ‘and do you tell your boys they’ll have to make sacrifices?’ and the woman was like, oh. uhm, I guess not.
    And I think that’s a big part of the problem, women are still making all the sacrifices and carrying the burden of the balance. There are so few jobs that allow parents the flexibility they need to also raise kids and its invariably the mum who’s on call for schools, takes off if there’s an emergency etc. Employers expect this of women and it often accounts for a ‘brain-drain’ in female employers in good jobs in their mid-30s. I’ve only looked at this in detail in the context of the legal industry in Britain, but we work in an outdated employment model that has been designed to follow a man’s development on the premise he had a wife at home with the kids, which is reflected in the huge shortage of female partners in law firms despite much higher entry rates and the number of part time workers (77% of part-time employees in Britain are women).

    Gillian put me onto a relevant article “Why women still can’t have it all” in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-8217-t-have-it-all/9020/) that is definitely worth a look. Anne-Marie Slaughter aptly details, women who ‘have it all’ are “superhuman, rich, or self-employed”, with valuable insight into how to address the issue.

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