Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Am I a bad feminist?

I should preface what I’m about to say with the fact that I do consider myself a feminist. Like total badass and all-round babe Caitlin Moran, I believe that all women simply have to be feminists. It’s a bit strange not to want equal rights for yourself and your gender.

I am also aware, though, that I’m not quite up to standard as a feminist. I share this feeling, which is perhaps becoming a prevailing mood among some women, with Roxane Gay, author of the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist: Essays. This collection offers a humorous insight into the mind of a woman who believes in the fundamental aims of feminism but says ‘I read Vogue, and I’m not doing it ironically’. She alludes in her title to the high standards some feminists set for themselves and other women when it comes to the ways a good feminist should behave, think and act. It’s as if she read my mind.

Recent events have brought my lack of dedication to the cause into stark focus. A while ago, over dinner with friends, a tipsy debate (read: slanging match) about feminism erupted. After occasionally interjecting and positing counter arguments to both sides, I eventually sat back and watched it unfold. As the Sauvignon Blanc flowed, everyone got angrier, talked over each other, took the argument round in a circle and generally spoiled the evening. The boys demanded statistics as proof of the daily episodes of sexism the girls encountered. The girls were annoyed that the boys were de-valuing their argument by saying they’d gone all ‘shrill’. The boys felt personally attacked because the girls hadn’t specified that they didn’t include them in the ‘men’ category. The girls said they were sick of being polite about issues surrounding sexism and misogyny, and they no longer cared if they came across as rude.

I kept schtum for an easy life, because I wanted to drink my wine and enjoy my meal and because I didn’t think the argument was worth having if it was just going to leave a lingering bad atmosphere. In the end nothing was resolved, everyone was just quite cross. However, when women are still getting such a raw deal, should I be a bit more shouty about it? Was I wrong to clam up? Increasingly I feel as though I'm not a good enough feminist because I don't fight or shout as loud as I could.

These days, the ways in which one can be a bad feminist are endless. I felt a bit sorry for Miley Cyrus when she went off on her dental-floss-leotard bender, provoking the response ‘you only think that because she’s a woman! She’s empowered!’ from one po-faced acquaintance. My interest in what one might call ‘girly’ pursuits is frowned upon by some who think I’ve simply been brainwashed by the patriarchal media. I buy lifestyle magazines and I enjoy reading them. I like frivolous things like makeup, clothes and jewellery. I paint my nails, I pluck my eyebrows and occasionally I wear high heels. What is important is that it is my choice and my right to enjoy these things.

Being proscriptive is not ok, whether you’re telling me I have to look beautiful because it’s my role as a woman to be ornamental or whether you’re telling me I can’t possibly be a good feminist if I do wear makeup or enjoy fashion. I direct you to a fabulous article by beauty writer Sali Hughes about her, and womankind’s, right to express herself through makeup and how this doesn’t make her a blubbering moron who can’t also talk about the serious stuff. Being interested in YSL Faux Cils mascara and BBC News 24 are not mutually exclusive. See also this fantastic bit of writing by Hadley Freeman about why reading fashion magazines doesn’t make you stupid. Just to throw in another casual bit of gender stereotyping, do we consider men incapable of coherent thought just because they blather on about sport? It is so unfair to judge someone’s entire character and moral code based on one aspect of their life, man or woman.

All of my ‘girly’ interests aside, the main reason I fear I’m not a good feminist is because I don’t fight hard enough for the cause. I grew up in a household where I don't think I even heard the word 'feminism' before my teenage years. There were no gender roles to speak of. Both parents cooked, both parents worked (in the same profession), both did the laundry. I’m one of two daughters and as kids we practically lived outside, climbing trees, catching frogs and getting muddy in our wellies. We had barbies too, but there were no restrictions on what we wanted to do, or how we wanted to dress or play. We had both a mini doctor’s kit and a mini mechanic kit. Home videos are testament to the fact that we sometimes mixed up their contents, treating all manner of illnesses with a screwdriver and a chisel. I grew up unaware that there was a problem or that sexism even existed. I wonder if this has made me complacent.

As an adult- I use that term loosely- I've encountered the kind of misogyny and sexism which sees women jeered at on the streets or patronised for 'having an opinion'. The kind where the only way to get a man to leave you alone is to say your boyfriend is on his way, or the kind where you occasionally feel scared walking home alone. Aside from such daily instances, perhaps it has hindered my life in unknown ways: the job application tossed in the bin on the basis of gender. I seem to have accepted all of this and live my life accordingly, planning around it.

Is apathy the reason why the cause of feminism isn't advancing faster? Our grandparents’ views about gender roles seem extreme when compared even to those of our parents, so surely the trend will continue and things will continue to get better? Now I'm not so sure. Young women's apathy might stall things and even allow for regression.

There are plenty of examples of this regression. In recent years the internet, and social media in particular, has become a place where large numbers of vile threats are made against women on a daily basis. The experience of Caroline Criado-Perez is one high profile example. She was threatened with rape and murder, up to fifty times per hour on Twitter for a period in July, as a result of her campaign to have women depicted on banknotes. The Guardian recently reported that there had been a 21% increase in reported sex offences on trains in the year 2013-14, a depressing statistic. It shouldn’t be ignored that many of the perpetrators of this abuse and misogyny, both online and off, are young men. Young men who don’t seem to be following any kind of trend to do with the fading away of sexism over time. Perhaps the problem isn't going away, perhaps it's actually slowly getting more ingrained, and perhaps my inaction means that I’m part of the problem.

A lot of people like to have a go at feminists, saying they nit-pick, they suck the joy out of things, they’re killjoys. This nit-picking is actually simply pointing out the insidious nature of sexism, and how although we might sometimes feel like we, as women, have it pretty good, there is still a long way to go. The work of the Everyday Sexism Project provides the shock we need to remind us how unfairly women are treated. This infuriating video is an uncomfortable watch, but an accurate representation of the harassment many women experience when walking down the street alone. Just this week, the Global Gender Gap Report conducted by the World Economic Forum placed the UK in 26th place on a list of the most gender equal countries in the world, falling from 18th place last year. This comes in the wake of average wages for women in the workplace falling by £2,700 since 2013.

I don’t think that my choice to buy makeup, magazines or beautiful shoes makes me a bad feminist. Failing to acknowledge the scale of the problems women still face and deciding that it was easier to stay the hell out of discussions about feminism definitely did make me a bad feminist. I am going to try harder to speak up when I hear or see an example of misogyny or sexism. Although things are moving in the right direction, I’ve realised that we can only start being complacent once we have reached the point of total equality. We aren’t there yet.

Kate MacCarthy

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