As I mentioned in a previous post I recently attended a series of lectures at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, it was a fantastic experience all round and I enjoyed so much of it, my mind buzzing with so many thoughts and ideas and questions I figured I should organize them before spitting it all out onto the internet. But the thoughts provoked by this particular panel have taken on a life of their own and somehow fed into such a range of other coincidental happenings in the week since I’m just going to make a start of untangling a few of the issues and come back to this later when time (hopefully) adds a little more clarity.
The panel’s blurb asked, rather aggressively in my opinion, “Is it any wonder that women hate each other?” We’ve all been bitten by harsh criticism or cruel jibes about our size, shape, style etc. at some point in our lives, and we’re told both perpetrators and victims of this cruelty are by and large women. Such assumptions are usually accompanied by the view that we are our own worst enemy, and much worse to each other than any man. The panel itself was sparked by a comment at last year’s FODI, when a young woman asked why it was only the girls that called her a slut.
The central question was why women are so awful to one another, and each panellist tackled this in distinct ways so I’ll start by introducing the illustrious 5 here:
Eva Cox (EC from now on) is a sociologist and analyst that is particularly eloquent when it comes to contemporary feminist issues and women in the workplace. She is a passionate advocate of a revival of women’s liberation. Tara Moss (TM) is an author (crime novels with a model heroine), journalist and social commentator, beautiful woman and beautiful voice for a new generation of feminists. Germaine Greer (GG) hardly needs an introduction given her historical contributions to feminism, she’s a writer, commentator, academic, and Danielle Miller (DM) a writer (WordPress blog here) and educator who specialises in tapping into girls’ potential.
To the great aggravation of the Chair (Jenny Brockie), TM launched into the debate by completely undermining its central premise- no, actually, women aren’t that bad to one another, men are much wore to each other, and much worse to women, she threw in some statistics, notably men are 400% more likely to commit an offence intended to cause injury. The women sitting beside me shifted uncomfortably. EC agreed, while we’re at it, she insisted, lets not make great generalizations about all women! Brockie shifted uncomfortably- all this level headedness wasn’t going to make for good soundbites. I leant forward, well hell, this is much more interesting, lets get the pot stirred up. When the chair herded the conversation back to the point TM tried a different tack- if we perceive women to be cruel to one another, it is mainly because we expect women to be nice. We tend to demonize female aggression, assertiveness and competitiveness. This struck a chord with me, especially as EC continued on about the way we value, and as a society, make a virtue out of being nice- but only for women. I’ve seen this so often, with professionally assertive men being described as sharks where women are ball-busters. In the very adjectives we continue to use, we deny men credit for sympathy and kindness, and we attack women who are dominant, forceful and ambitious.
From what I have witnessed, there are still two roles a woman can play, the virtuous woman or the corrupting influence. To want a career, to be willing to forego having children (to a later age, or not at all) is somehow selfish, it’s so against the grain that people just don’t know what to do with it! We certainly see this in some of the attacks of Australian PM Julia Gillard. As Anne Summers quoted in a recent lecture Mark Latham, former leader of the Labor party said just last year: “she’s on the public record saying she made a deliberate choice not to have children to further her parliamentary career… I think having children is the great loving experience of any lifetime. And by definition you haven’t got as much love in your life if you make that particular choice.” She’s also been described as barren by Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, delightful.
There has been a tirade of abuse aimed at this woman politician that is unique to her gender, although the worst and most public is often by men, it comes from political pundits of both sexes, and when it comes from a woman suddenly the media lens sharpens- as it did when GG made public comment on Gillard’s badly cut jackets and a fat arse. At FODI GG did not apologise for contributing to the lower tone of political discourse that her comments contributed to, but she did state that “having a big arse is not a bad thing”, rather something to embrace! But lets not hack away at old fish, the point of all that is that women, and the media are hyper aware of women not behaving the way women are expected to.
TM believes that can be primarily attributed to the fact that women in today’s society are still “seen but not heard”, though we make up half the population we don’t (get to) use our voices– we represent 20-25% of the print voice of mainstream US publications- in the US election 4thEstate found that less than 20% of statements on women’s issues were made by women, in the UK some 70% of news statements are made by men, the Global Media Monitoring Project last year found that 46 per cent of news stories reinforced gender stereotypes and just 13 per cent of news stories focus centrally on women. As women represent such a tiny slice of the media pie is it surprising that the voices that are raised above the din by (primarily male) editors and producers, are those of women on the extremes, and thus female relations that make the news and are fed back to us are far from representative. And all this contributes to a system that reinforces itself.
It is clear that gender roles are increasingly being imposed on women, by women- as GG states, we are policing ourselves, and all this along the lines of a masculine moralistic standard. Emmeline Pankhurst stated in November 1914 “Men made the moral code and they expect women to accept it”. This comment reflected on thousands of years of the female paradigm- virgin (or mother) vs whore. You are to be one or the other according to archetypes of womanhood (constructed in western literature at least)- Eve in the Bible, Helen of Troy, Aphrodite etc in Greek mythology. As GG aptly put it to much approving laughter: “Women are expected to be and look delectable, not horny”. Visibly women have not just accepted this social straightjacket, we’re enforcing it! The proof of the pudding is in the eating ladies- its patently clear from just a glance at mainstream cinema targeting women- our beloved chick-flicks such as Mean Girls, What’s your number, Legally Blonde or The Devil Wears Prada- the first to check a woman, to put her back in her place when she gets too big for her boots, are her female friends, or rivals. And that’s before we get started on the fact that girls and women always secondary roles, or their roles revolve around the men in their lives- I’ll definetly look at all this in more detail another time, but look up Anita Sarkeesian’s work on this, and the Bechdel test!
But isn’t that all in the movies? The perceived notion that women pick on another, may not occur in the pandemic proportions the mainstream media (and the hosts at FODI) would like us to believe, but there is no smoke without fire. Again we can look at the way we zoom in on women who let ‘us’ down, a recent tabloid example was Twilight star Kirsten Stewart cheating on her boyfriend Robert Pattinson, her dalliance was with a 40year old married man, the director of her recent movie, a movie in which his wife actually played Kirsten’ character’s mother. The media, the blogs and the women’s chat shows (rubbish like The View) all focused in on Kirsten, how could she! What a slut! A harpy! If Rupert Sanders was mentioned at all it was usually to say that these things were to be expected of men, men are useless etc. We expect certain qualities from our ‘fellow women’ that we’re happy to let slide with men- a crucial example is the double standard for sexual appetites, a sexual woman is slut, a sexual man is, well, just a man. According to EC this ‘bitchiness’ is “a symptom of oppression rather than a symptom of femininity”, women are easy targets of our ire, they can so easily be thrown into one category or the other- the slut or the prude, she tries too hard or she never makes an effort etc etc. GG attributes this bitchiness to a central fear women have of “being abandoned” (whereas men’s greatest fear is humiliation). We (supposedly) still need and rely on men for our personal and emotional security and our professional advancement and we need them to like us, to want us, and we are competing with each other, with other women, for that approval. EC believes that women continue to feel their pool of competition is other women, not men, and so in both our personal lives and the workplace, they are our targets. This is a learned behaviour, something that we have internalised in the way we, are brought up to view competition, aggression and ambition.
Add then to this the expected niceness, that we assume a degree of sisterly support, so that when that is removed we see it as backstabbing, and we are hypersensitive to such criticism. The argument made by EC is furthermore that our ammunition for critique is intensely personal- women supposedly attack physique and personality, even dress, rather than the professional qualities of their colleagues. Women, she continues, are better at emotional rather than collegial relations, we tend to take interactions a little more personally and thus we’re cut more deeply by perceived bitchiness of friends, classmates and colleagues.
It was recently brought to my attention by my father, who has long worked deep in the corporate structure, that he’d come across a study that showed that female HR managers when presented with CVs that had pictures, had a tendency to favour the plain applicant over the pretty. Was this the inner bitch? A vindictiveness echoed by the ridiculous stance of Samantha Brick? I asked another woman about this. She admitted, when she looked back, that when asked to recruit a PA for a group of her seniors she had hired the less attractive of two female applicants, quite consciously as both women had similar qualifications- the prettier of the two would in retrospect probably have been better she added. Was this spite? Well actually no, it’s just that the bosses were all men, and in her opinion, at best they wouldn’t have taken the pretty one seriously, at worst they would have been distracted. What an abysmal assessment of our men… and yet…
The general conclusions of the panel is that all women don’t hate each other (duh), but neither do we provide one another with the encouragement and support needed to compete in a world that often assumes we take second place -say Dr. Politician or CEO and most people still picture a man, and statistically this is still true, so hey. If we are to embrace the potential of female contributions, then there has to be room to do this and TM and EC say we should vote with our feet on this one. We need to be discerning consumers- if 50% of writing is by women, why are so few literary awards going to women writers? Lets start to value the female point of view, their contributions. Lets invest in female enterprise and productions. Why aren’t we standing up to belittlements of achievements- when people speak of the feminization of education they deplore the lack of male role models, but what about the fantastic role models that women can provide as authority figures? We need to stop using words such as whore and slut in off handed ways and allowing the men around us to do so. Instead of ‘taking the high road’ and letting misogyny and sexism, from BOTH sexes, wash over us, lets all stand up like Madam Guillard did this week and say fuck you.