First published in The National, 17 Oct 2016
I’M giving serious thought to changing my column name to “this week in sexist BS”.
There are lots of things going on in the world right now, but it feels rather like we’ve been flipped inside out. There has been a lot to get mad about for quite some time, but this week The Bucket of Ignorance truly hath runneth over with grade-A sexist bunk. The fact that the negative stereotypes of the gender binary intersect with everything – politics, sport, journalism and beyond – mean that they are impossible to ignore. Now seems like a prudent point to stop and cogitate on the absurdity of where we find ourselves, as a supposedly advanced civilisation. If you want to quickly take the temperature of the current conversation, just type Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton into any social media platform. If you need something a little closer to home, try Ched Evans, and marvel at the number of men offering to rape women as punishment. This sort of on-the-sleeve vitriol has become normal.
Yet this – the sexual assault stuff – is the only thing so far that seems to have dented the Trump train in any way. Why? Because enough of us have reach the tipping point. This is one feather too many on the scale. For a lot of us, 2016 is the year the passivity bandwidth has maxed out. The year the patience well has run dry. We’re finally finding our ovaries and saying “this is not okay”. And yes, we really have to say this out loud, because even though it’s blindingly obvious to every woman out there, people still think calling it a joke vindicates it in some way. A prime example from just last week was Everyday Sexism’s Laura Bates having to underline to Radio 4’s Justin Webb the danger of conflating sexual assault with compliments.
We’re all thinking how absurd it is that we need to keep having this conversation. We all know we’re conditioned to minimise and de-escalate, but somehow seeing this play out on such an enormous, hyperreal scale has prompted many women to speak up. This week Michelle Obama perfectly verbalised what we’ve all been screaming internally. If you haven’t seen her speech, I suggest you watch it – that your spouses and children watch it – because nothing has more elegantly vocalised the frustration of being female bodied and watching this car-crash play out. And not just the presidential election campaign, I’m talking about the culture of plain-sight misogyny this campaign has come to typify.
For most of my adult life, aside from on paper, I’ve played my feminism cool. The desire to be socially accepted has meant I’ve pushed down bits of me that would disrupt the niceties if I were to speak my mind. The thoughts and feelings have always been there, but I haven’t necessarily felt like I could bring them out. It’s a product of being shy-ish in person and the social conditioning that every little girl is taught. That subtle from-birth training to adhere to cultural and social norms. Be deferential. Be polite. Do your best to be liked.
But all the while, even though it’s against my natural instincts, I’ve found it harder and harder to bite my tongue. Every news story. Every microaggression. Every violent tweet. Every unwanted grab. Every loaded “sweetheart” or “darling” or “snowflake”. Every time my daughter is complimented for her looks and my sons for their intellect. Each has glaciated the surface of my personality, to the extent that I’ve moved from being the uncomfortable eyebrow raiser, to someone happy to pierce the atmosphere with a “no”. Significant when you’ve spent your life trying to be quiet and good.
Lots of other women feel this way. I refuse to believe any well-minded woman hears that sort of bilge 2016 has exposed us to and feels 100 per cent okay with it. Even if she’s trying to be a The Cool Girl or The Quiet Girl or The Good Wife. Feminists are not fringe. We’re just not easy to spot because of the caricature we’ve been given. The paint-by-numbers feminist who doesn’t wear makeup, probably has a raging bush, and wanders around screaming “I HATE MEN” while slapping them with Simone de Beauvoir books.
That’s so far removed from the truth. So many are only beginning to find their voices as a consequence of others speaking out. It’s a safety in numbers thing. As Caitlin Moran says: if you have a vagina and want to be able to decide what to do with it, congratulations – you’re a feminist. That matters whether you want to keep that vagina at home, or share it with others, or put it in The White House, or do whatever you like with it, while being free of aggression or expectation. Yes, as western women we’ve got a sweet deal by comparison. We can get an education. We can go to work. We can get an abortion. We’re probably not going to be forced into a child marriage. We’re fairly unlikely to be trafficked or have our children abducted by Boko Haram. We’re at little risk from female genital mutilation. We don’t face the threat of honour killings or acid attacks. So while here in the west, we’re mostly not dying, plenty of women elsewhere are. Plenty of women who can’t tell you how inconvenient it is to be raped or beaten or cut or killed. Even when they do tell you, we’ve created a culture where gender bias is so naturalised, they’re not always believed. So we need to be loud. And yes – we are angry. Anger is an appropriate response to the non-exhaustive list above.
THAT’S why I’m done with speaking out being an added-extra. I’m done with hidden feminism. I’m finished with being the plainclothes officer who only flashes the badge when it counts. I hope you’ll consider doing the same. Right now it counts. Society tells us to be quiet and pliant. We laugh off the dude that stands too close to us. We don’t smack away the wandering digits of the creepy guy on the bus. Instead of finding our voices, we freeze and accept, and feel dirty afterwards.
This is bigger than us. We know feminism isn’t just for women, but we need to keep saying this aloud until it’s crystal clear. The fortification of the gender binary hurts all of us. It’s about freeing everyone from the expectations and inequalities of each, and creating the freedom to be yourself – despite what society tells you you should be because of your assigned gender.
This week I heard a brilliant phrase. Cheryl Strayed, the award-winning American author, described this growing refusal to comply as “The Age of The Bitch”. How perfect is that? This dismantling of the need to be liked that bridles us to keeping things palatable for others is what we need to embrace.
So ladies, it’s time to unhook ourselves from that conditioning. Your voices of dissent are needed more than ever, because it’s about to get worse. Now is the time for us to take action that will shape the future.
As The Atlantic’s Michelle Cottle points out, however the US election goes, it’ll open the floodgates of misogyny that will reverberate far beyond politics, and far beyond the US. If Hillary Clinton wins, we all know the sort of language that will colour the political grievances. And if Trump wins, we have a man in the highest and perhaps most visible office in the world saying it’s okay to assault women.
Today I called something sexist bullshit in the street, much louder than a whisper, and you know what? The sky didn’t fall on my head. And what’s even better, it felt honest and real. So let’s be loud. Let’s be abrasive. Let’s dig our heels in and be that bitch.