This is a piece I have been chewing over for a while now. My views on feminism; what this heavily loaded term actually means to me, and how we understand this word in today’s world. Now I claim to be no expert, but I think the topic needs addressing and to be thought about all the same. Which is why I encourage you to take a quick break from checking your emails or watching funny videos of cats falling off things to read this, and hopefully open your eyes and make you think about your views on feminism. So if I’m being totally honest, at first I felt like a fairly naïve character when it came to feminism. It seemed like a loaded term that had many avenues and complicated arguments. So I took it upon myself to do a little research and come to terms with the major ideas, before I looked at it in today’s world. (If you too feel a little confused with the multiple definitions that float around this term, and think your expertise is a little grey, allow me to give you my most basic understanding of it).
Key ideas and waves of Feminism
First wave – Women fight for the right to vote, The Suffragettes – The early 1900’s
Second Wave – Women fight for increased rights in the workplace and sexual liberation – their right to access and use contraception – 1960’s
Third wave – The fight continues to abolish gender stereotypes, defend gay women, women of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and women who work in the sex industry – 1990’s – Present
But the question is, where are we now…? I have found that this topic has been popular lately, creeping into my world regularly; partly from my own curiosity, partly by co-incidence but also with my tentative assumption that feminism is on the rise. In the media we had Emma Watson speaking at the UN about gender equality. The infamous Daily Mail article that addressed the new female Cabinet Ministers on the day of the re-shuffle, discussing their fashion choices as breaking news. Commenting on their “don’t mess with me lipstick” or “turbo-charged hair”. The new ‘Always’ advert asking, “when did doing something like a girl become an insult?” These messages signalled to me feminism is still very much present and visible in our supposedly gender-equal age. Now when I began this journey I thought the main issue affecting feminism today as disproportionate pay between men and women. However as a newly graduated artist, pay in general is an issue for me, let alone the difference in it, so I couldn’t really connect to top earning women earning less than top earning men (though I do not agree with it). So I thought to start with something closer to home, I read a play to aid my education, the most feminist sounding play I could think of, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler.
“I bet you’re worried. I was worried. I was worried about vaginas. I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them… There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them– like the Bermunda Triangle.” – Eve Enlser
How many times have we been in conversation where penises, balls, and male sexuality are discussed in an open and light-hearted manner? Joking about them, drawing silly pictures of them, or having this proud masculine organ thrust into conversational banter. But when it comes to the female parts people tend to be more reserved. The vagina in all its glory is not celebrated; it is hidden, it is unladylike to discuss, the word itself is not particularly endearing, and god forbid you mention periods. The Vagina Monologues written in 1996 is based on interviews with over 200 females talking about their vagina and their experiences as women. It asks fun questions like what their vagina would wear, if it could speak what would it say, what it is called? Wonderfully humorous, heart-warming and also moving accounts are given, with women openly discussing sexuality, sexual violence, femininity, childbirth, and all the ins and outs of their vaginas. Though rather graphic sounding, it actually is an extremely charming, educational and tastefully written play which I encourage both men and women alike to read. It opened my eyes though to the problems women faced when the play was written, of oppression and inequality, and made me think that in nearly two decades, things have not seemed to change that drastically.
Now I’m not advocating for gender neutrality, or condemning females who celebrate their feminine charms and males who like to play the masculine hero. It’s fine to play your gender role, many of us do and that’s celebrated and accepted in today’s society. But let me draw your attention to some gender behaviours I have observed, and ask you too to question them, perhaps you will also see them as a bit bizarre and out-dated in todays world…
An elderly man, giving up his place on the tube for a young woman to sit down instead.
A man expected to pay the bill when out to dinner with a woman.
I guess you can call this positive discrimination or gentlemanly, they are not particularly offensive gestures. But logically they don’t make sense. The woman on the tube can stand more comfortably than the old man; the woman out to dinner may be in a more stable place financially than the man. Then there are the more negatively connoted gender behaviours. That males are less sensitive – you don’t see many male nanny’s or nurses. That women are less funny – there are less female comedians. That high-powered businesswoman are hard and insensitive. These assumptions which people still do unconsciously make, mean that inequality is still ingrained into our society for the better or the worse, even if we claim it to be gone. As a woman I know that feminism means something else now, I am fairly confident that in the society I live in, I would not be prevented from choosing a career path or making life decisions because of my sex. However there is still an underlying, ignored issue that I never before thought about, but once noticed cannot avert my attention from.
‘I think I’m a Feminist’ Worklight Theatre, a group of three men, in their recent production I think I’m a Feminist pointed out so sensitively a blindingly obvious factor that seems to affect thousands of women on a daily basis. Its uncomfortable, and I never thought about as something wrong, it’s just a way of life. Something that happens and I can’t do anything about it. It can make me feel angry, defenceless, vulnerable and scared. As a man you see a female walking down the street, getting on the tube or the train. It could be first thing in the morning, it could be late at night and dark. Harmlessly but automatically your eyes scan her appearance; her face, her clothes, her body and think ‘yeah nice’ or ‘not so nice’. Sometimes eyes linger for a while. Sometimes the eyes stare. Now think about it from my perspective, as a female, as your mother, your sister, your girlfriend. To every girl you mindlessly look over, that is someone else’s mother, sister, or lover. And we as females get it on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes we look back feeling disgusted, sick and objectified. Sometimes we are so used to it, we have learnt to just ignore it. Sometimes we move carriages out of anger, or change the course of our path out of fear. Sometimes we sit tight waiting for the moment to pass, helplessly looking round for a friendly face to come to our aid. Though we love to believe that these problems aren’t real, they very much are at the for-front of our everyday. Just now (as I am writing this) I got on the train, and men instantly looked me up and down and stare, and I am used to this, it happens on a regular basis. That’s not ok, that I expect to be looked at derogatively and do nothing about it, but nervously avert my gaze and try to work out if I have dressed to provocatively in my causal Sunday attire?
I hate that when feminism is mentioned people think, “Oh shut up, women can vote and work what else is there?” Or brush it to the side, imagining hairy arm-pitted ladies gathering round in man-hating groups damning women who wear dresses and make-up and are adhering to the stereotype. Or even when I mention the name of the play I think I’m a Feminist to my sister and she tuts in dismay at the subject matter, yet approves when she hears the play was in fact performed by a group of men! This attitude needs to change, its narrow-minded and like me before my research, uneducated. This is not what feminism means today.
Allow me to impose another meaning of the word and see if it suits you more now. I like listening to strong, successful females. I like hearing of female success. It gives me courage, it gives me confidence, it gives me belief. In world where I have been brought up with gender equality as a theory, but with whispers of gender roles and stereotypes still very much in play. It is confidence boosting to listen to how they got to their successes. I know that I can do anything I want if put my mind to it and have been fortunately allowed to choose my path freely. However, from a young age and still now I am told “its fine, you can just marry rich.” I hate hearing that. Though I know anyone can marry rich, male or female, the tone in which it is has been in directed throughout my life to me, and to other bright young women, leads to the opinion that it is expected that a man will support us. Great, lets all sit back and relax, start popping the kids out once we are married woman and no longer work. But I don’t want to! And nor should anyone, why on earth should I feel that my role in life is justified and secure because I am a woman, and attach myself to a man’s success. What if I was a lesbian, and I married a female, what would we do sit back and wait for a man to provide for us? And to the poor men in the world, to be faced with the pressure of expecting to be the sole provider for future wives and children. It’s not fair, and it’s not a message of equality. I do not believe that when I say this you will wholeheartedly believe this is the case nowadays, and neither do I. But there are still hints and traces of the damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by a strong man in our world.
So yeah I guess I am a feminist; I want to challenge these perceptions, these whispers and I want to fight that gender stereotyping is just accepted. Maybe we can’t change views overnight, I know that time has engrained them deep into the fabrics of humanity. But we should question them, for men and women to think every now and again; when you slip out that sexist joke, or you eye up a girl and judge her appearance, when you automatically assume that the man should pay. That we think… Is feminism now a myth?
Do we live in an equal society?
Does it personally affect you, or someone you love?
Do you care if things stay this way forever?
We can make a change in little things we do, check in and think, why. And at least that’s a start.