Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In a man's world

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."
When I was about 12, living in Portugal, the school bus driver and some younger male children on the bus were discussing a Benfica football game from the night before. We all supported the same team, so I chipped in with a comment that I no longer remember. What I do remember is the way the bus driver turned around and shouted at me while still driving the bus: "You, shut up! If we want to talk to talk about make-up and dresses we'll ask for your opinion but until then you shut up!" This is certainly one of the earliest and most direct forms of sexism I have experienced.

I recalled this episode recently after watching a fascinating documentary called Miss Representation which addresses the role of powerful women in America and the way that they are treated by the mainstream media. The film made several interesting points beyond those which I am most used to hearing; for instance, it talked about how female politicians are commented on in terms of fashion and style rather than policies and argued that they are described with 'charged' stereotypical language referring to their opinions as 'complaints' rather than 'comments', describing them with derogatory words such as 'bitch' but also the usual objectification of 'hot', etc. This is well illustrated in this video from Saturday Night Live with comedienne Tina Fey, in reference to Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 US presidential election (edit: I couldn't find a non-edited video but here is a transcript*)

The documentary also touched on a series of other similar situations, such as the near-unbelievable objectification of American female news anchors and the stark contrast to their male counterparts, it discussed the role of "women's stories" in Hollywood, and how young girls are not shown that they can hold positions of power. More than that, little boys are taught that to be real men they must be more powerful and more successful than women, rather than equal, and never show weakness or emotion.

The documentary tells us that "only 34 women have served as governors compared to 2319 men" (now 35), and that US legislators tend to be picked from white, Christian, married (straight), college educated, over-40s males. Thankfully, from a brief glance at the House of Commons, the situation in the UK is slightly better. Certainly there are better parity laws, even if they are far from being a decent finished product (is any law timeless?). One example of this is the better recognition of paternity leave.

I've always had practical experience of sexism by virtue of being a woman, not often as blunt as my earlier example, but not always far off. However, it is only recently that I have come to recognise and accept that this does not have to be normal. Some friends of mine that have recently had children are making me realise the level of compartmentalisation (to not use the baggage of 'conditioning') to which children of either sex are subjected. I do not necessarily know what can be done on a larger scale to address this societal issue but what I do believe is that having an individual awareness of the situation is a good first step to changing things.


*The relevant part of the transcript is:

Hillary Clinton: But, Sarah, one thing we can agree on is that sexism can never be allowed to permeate a American election. 

Sarah Palin: So, please, stop Photoshopping my head on sexy bikini pictures! 

Hillary Clinton: And stop saying I have cankles! 

Sarah Palin: Don't refer to me as a MILF! 

Hillary Clinton: Don't refer to me as a "flurge" -- I Googled what it stands for, and I do not like it! 

Sarah Palin: Reporters and commentators, stop using words that diminish us! Like "pretty", "attractive", "beautiful"... 

Hillary Clinton: "Harpy", "shrew", and "boner shrinker". 


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