There are lots of depressing things about being an academic (there are also lots of amazing ones, too). One of the most depressing is obviously people’s disregard for the English language. But another thing that has been depressing me recently is students’ attitudes to feminism, gender etc.
Now, I have been a feminist since a very young age. It wasn’t something drummed into me at home, or through the media, or school. It was just something I knew for myself to be right, and important. In Middle School, I was constantly campaigning for the rights of girls. I got nowhere in my anti-skirts protests, and my ‘allowing girls to lay football’ one only got as far as two girls at a time being allowed to join in. Hardly in the league of Ms Pankhurst, but at least I felt I was trying to make the world a betterplace. Even if 1980s Grimsby wasn’t up for political revolutionaries.
Although I wasn’t around when women didn’t have a vote, and the battles of the 60s and early 70s were also fought before I arrived in the world, I am old enough to remember a time when the norm was still for men to work and women to stay at home with the kids; for certain pursuits to be male and others female. Old enough to remember women campaigning for rights in certain issues. Old enough to appreciate the victories that have been won and to recognise there is still far to go before men and women have equal rights, not just in law, but in people’s mindsets and behaviours (and that doesn’t just mean oppression of women – a lot of men need rights, too, particularly in terms of childcare etc).
I don’t think that we are yet in a position of total equality, but lots of things HAVE been achieved. I know very few households that follow the ‘man work, woman home’ model, especially those without pre-school children – and even in those with pre-school children, I know just as many where both parents share work and childcare, where the dad stays at home, or where both parents work as I do those that follow the ‘old’ model.
There may still be nowhere near enough women in positions of corporate and governmental power as there should be, but very few would deny that women have the right to hold such positions. Similarly, no-one would deny the rights of men and women to do any job they wanted, although prejudice still remains towards those who choose to go against old-fashioned nonsensical convention.
Most of the students I teach have been brought up in homes that don’t follow the old fashioned model. Most of them wouldn’t dream of going into that kind of set-up themselves. Most of them would completely agree that people should have equal rights regardless of gender. Most of them would want to say they are free to wear what they like and work where they like.
So why is it that when I asked a group of third year students what they associate with ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’, ‘gay men’ and ‘lesbians’, and when I deliberately stressed that list could include anything at all they think of, it didn’t just have to be stereotypes, every single answer in all those categories was a stereotype. They wouldn’t describe themselves in those terms, I’m sure, yet they still came immediately to their minds. Oh, and no prizes for guessing which category was the only one that the word ‘feminist’ came up in…
A week later and they were looking at some feminist critiques of films. I was shocked to hear their conversations ‘well, I don’t think any of us would say we were feminists’, ‘I don’t think I’m THAT kind of feminist’ etc. Oh, and of course, there was a grand assumption that only women could be feminists. Challenge them on their values and most would espouse several feminist values of equality. They would also rally against notions of homophobia. None of them conform totally to old values of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Yet, apparently, feminism is not for them. There was also an assumption that we are past a place where feminist issues matter – that those debates and arguments are all in the past.
One of the pieces talked about the Playboy bunny cult and its rise in recent years. When pressed, most admitted they weren’t totally comfortable with the Playboy ethos and with teenagers wearing Playboy logos, but they fell back on the failsafe ‘it’s a brand, innit? The brand isn’t the same thing as the magazine’. Others raised the issue of ’empowerment’ to be a sexual object, and of course, the fact that men can be objects as well. So the fact that we can all be objects now is a victory for feminism is it? I also received one essay last term from a male student who went off on one about how feminists need to shut up about mens’ magazines objectifying women, because men like it. Err, OK. The assignment wasn’t even about that, which makes it all the more funny/sad.
I think the criticism that some branches of early feminism were unhelpful in that they did promote an anti-man agenda is valid. But those were radical wings of feminism, they didn’t espouse the whole agenda. However, it seems to be that that style of feminist is what the whole term comes to mean now.
There is a suspicion of feminism, a backlash (which the mid-late 90s so didn’t help), a mixed dialogue of people both wanting to acknowledge there are some differences between men and women (which I think is fine, as long as we recognise that some of what we perceive as differences are merely cultural constructs rather than natural ones) coupled with a taken-for-grantedness that we are all OK, we are all equal.
But I think these debates are still relevant. The fact that the world’s press seems so reluctant to support a female president and the ongoing struggle for women to gain recognition and status in certain areas (not least the church, politics and big business) show that there is still something to discuss. Not to mention the prevalence of lap dancing clubs, women being featured in so many lads’ mags and all that Playboy merchandise.
Even when I was in the church i noticed sexism creeping back in, even to more ‘progressive’ places like St Tom’s – all that ‘Wild at Heart’ tyope stuff seemed to me to be moving from a positive celebration of some aspects of masculinity to a proscriptive ‘this is what men should be like’ kind of vibe that potentially could be very damaging to all the men who are JUST NOT LIKE THAT. And vice versa for the women’s stuff. I’m not saying there is no place in culture for things that are more the preserve of women or men, what I am saying is that sometimes things that are naturally feminine or masucline get mixed up with culturally proscribed things and that can lead to messed up people who aren’t allowed to be themselves, and a return to the bad old days.
As much as I am sad to see my students distance themselves from it, maybe the term ‘feminism’ has had its day. Like ‘spastic’, ‘evangelical’ (and possibly ‘gay’ considering every 16-18 year old I know uses that term to mean rubbish, even though many of them would say they are not homophobic) it perhaps needs to be consigned to the heap of words that now mean something completely other than what they once did.
Maybe we just need, collectively, to stand up for each other, to recognise oppression and to challenge what we see around us. And that doesn’t just mean women (I never bought into that whole sisterhood thing) – these are issues for all of us.
I guess what I am mainly thinking is that I just wish students were less apathetic and would wake up, realise the battles that have already been won for them, acknowledge the problems that still exist (not just in terms of gender-related issues) and question the world a bit more.
And you know what? I really hope Hillary gets to be President.