Monthly Archives: April 2014

Misogyny today

Now, there’s a word that immediately turns people off.  It’s 2014, they cry, we left sexism in general and misogyny in particular behind us in the nineteen fifties.

Sadly not.  It seems that men today are just as insecure about their place in the world as they were in the fifties, possibly even more so.  In the ’50’s (we’ve all seen this on the TV), Mr. All-American-Male could come home and call out “Darling, I’m home” and expect his beautiful wife to already have a lovely dinner cooked for him to eat, so he can get down to the serious business of reading the paper and watching the television.

Well, that’s the stereotype, anyway.

These days, thanks to the Internet, we can see that attitudes haven’t shifted all that far.  A quick scan through YouTube videos, or (worse) the comments on YouTube videos, or the comments on any major news outlet’s stories will reveal that misogyny is alive and well.  It is largely impossible for a woman to post a video to YouTube without having comments made about what she looks like; it is largely impossible for a woman to be a politician without having comments made about what she looks like; it is largely impossible for a woman to walk down the street without having comments made about what she looks like.  Because, as we all know, it is a woman’s duty to look pretty for the men.

The Everyday Sexism Project makes sobering reading.  Whenever I am running out of rage, I can load up that page and be fuming or weeping or both in a matter of minutes.  The stories you find there range from the annoying to the horrifying and they are disturbing in their volume.  Then, there’s Not Always Right, which is always a good place to stop by for some variety in how badly we still treat each other.  There are more, and more, and more, but I will stop for now.  You get the picture.

Last night, I was introduced to this story, which makes sobering reading, and speaks volumes about how far we have yet to go before we even get back to the advances made in the ’70’s, and beyond towards actual equality.  The young man in that story clearly sees the young woman as a thing to be covetted, acquired and possessed.  She is not a person, in his eyes, but an object that he has every right to own.  He is angry with the older man, Dr Glass, because Dr Glass is competing with him for ownership of the booty.  He sees nothing wrong with his actions and is angry when Dr Glass calls him on it and causes him embarrassment.  His anger is directed outside even though it is his own action that has caused the situation.

I have a very dear friend who has been with me through thick and thin, over many years.  He has been with me while I struggled with my sexuality, and with life’s ups and downs.  He always takes me where I am, and isn’t afraid to tell me when I’ve been a moron.  He’s a great guy.

But.

When I mention Everyday Sexism, or any other story out there that suggests that women are having a squalid time of it, his simple reply is “People can write anything on the Internet.”

So yes, we still have some way to go.

Bullying (the first of many)

This week, I’m going to talk about bullying.  As denying-of-personhood goes, bullying is right up there as one of the most pervasive and harmful ways for one person to take away something that is not theirs to take.

When I was ten years old, many, many moons ago, somebody decided that it would be fun to call me gay and to spread the rumour around that I was gay.  I don’t know what the climate is like in British schools these days, but in the mid eighties, “gay” was a thing to be despised, ostracised and punished.  In addition, it cuts to the very core of a child’s developing psyche and sense of self as an individual.

At ten years of age, I hadn’t even begun finding any people attractive, let alone started working out if I was gay, straight or something else.  I guess that the “normal” way to go about it would be to start noticing people and finding them attractive, and to infer from that whether one is attracted to members of the same sex, members of the opposite sex or both (or neither).  Given the nature of the bullying I received and the time at which it occurred, I was denied that opportunity.

Over the next three years, there wasn’t a single day at school where someone didn’t jeer at me.  Gay, pooftah and bender were my constant companions.  Being in the UK, fag wasn’t very common, but it was in the mix too (“fag” normally means “cigarette” in British English usage).  My small group of friends were daubed with the same epithets, too, and the four of us just had to live with it.

One thing that sticks with me to this day, near-on thirty years since this all happened, was a single incident in the corridor.  I can picture it vividly in my mind: I was walking up the main corridor, past the room that would be my form room in fourth year, with the light shining in from the large windows on the left hand side.  Someone in a year above me was walking in the opposite direction and stared me briefly as he walked past.  I didn’t know him from Adam, we’d never had a single conversation and, apart from attending the same school, we had nothing whatsoever to do with one another.  “Gaylord,” he sneered as he carried on his way towards his next lesson.  I shrugged it off as yet another entirely normal interaction in my life at school, yet it remains with me as an in-a-nutshell summary of three of the most unpleasant years of my life, where complete strangers would be vicious to me because of a persistent rumour that not even I had any idea whether it was true or not.  At ten, I didn’t have the mature clarity of thought to come up with “excuse me, but my as-yet-emerging sexuality is yet to declare to me if it is gay or not and, even if it is, what business of yours is that, and what is bad about being gay, anyway?” and even if I had, the bullies didn’t have the maturity to understand that kind of reasoning either.

All of this unwanted attention affected me profoundly.  It made starting any new relationship more-or-less impossible.  Anybody I spoke to had “this is the gay boy” in bright neon lettering in their mind before I’d even opened my mouth, and that carried with it the knowledge that they would be tarred with the same brush if they engaged in any kind of relationship with me.

Much later, long after the bullying stopped, and long after the bullies had forgotten about their collective acts of unkindness, I was left with a life-shaping drive to prove to “them” that I wasn’t gay.  This mostly expressed itself through pornography (which was much harder to get hold of in the early nineties than it is now), which further distorted my by-that-time adolescent development.

So, where were the adults in all of this?  Where were the teachers?  What about the school’s anti-bullying policy?  The quick answer to those questions is “nowhere”.  I must emphasise that this next bit is pure speculation, for I have no supporting evidence, but the dots seem to line up in hindsight.  It was a Roman Catholic school, you see, and the church has long hated all things gay.  It is my belief that the authorities at the school decided that they couldn’t “encourage” my gayness by intervening in the bullying, so they simply turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the degrading treatment that was taking place on their watch, to me and to my friends.  They decided that their duty of care didn’t apply in our case and, effectively, hung up a big sign saying “bullying is bad, unless it’s homophobic, in which case, carry on”.

Where were my parents?  Well, they tried their best but, to this day, I don’t know what they did.  I assume that they informed the school of the ongoing problem.  I mean, this was happening every day for three years, and I wasn’t exactly silent on the issue.  My best guess is that they didn’t realise how bad it was or that they felt powerless to make it stop, or maybe both.  The only advice I remember receiving from them was “go along with it” which, as any survivor of bullying will tell you is probably the worst advice you can be given.  I don’t blame them for it, they simply had no idea how to help me.

Eventually, middle school ended and everyone went to the high school.  The people were the same, yet the bullying stopped immediately.  The bullies moved on with their lives, putting their unkindness behind them without even a backward glance, leaving me (and my friends) to cope with a childhood defined by bullying.

Now, I’ve rambled on for a thousand words, so I will be brief with my closing words.  Bullying is isolating.  It leaves you feeling that you are completely alone in the world and that nobody cares and that nobody will ever care.  You crave a single kind word, yet you know there won’t be one.  These days, there are online bullying support groups, which are brilliant.  One thing, though, when I last looked for support for my particular problem was this: the general-bullying site had a category for homophobic bullying that directed me to Stonewall’s site, which offered support for gay people who are bullied.  How alone did I feel, then, when the bullying site didn’t want me because the bullying was homophobic, and Stonewall didn’t want me because I wasn’t gay?

What women look like

For some reason I am yet to discover, many societies value their women for their appearance.  It’s five decades since the rise of feminism, and we still insist on denying personhood to half of the human population of the planet.  For some reason that continues to escape me, people (men usually) present the same image of the “ideal” woman over and over and over again.

Our children learn what this image is from a very young age and are given the message, and have it hammered home, that women need to conform to this image in order to have any value.  They also learn that that value is conferred on women only by men and that, like money, the value they have is nothing more than what others deem them to have at that moment.  A woman who gets a negative reputation loses this value faster than the Zimbabwean Dollar.  She has no control over her reputation, and months of careful work building it up can be destroyed in seconds by a rumour that doesn’t even need to be true. We see this time and again on our television screens and in magazines, and we all seem to subscribe to it.

We all know what that ideal-looking woman is like.  For starters, she’s white, tall, narrow, large-eyed and long-necked.  In short, she’s Barbie.  Thanks to the power of Photoshop, magazine shoots often look quite like Barbie.  This is dangerous because we are left with an entirely distorted image of what humans are supposed to look like.  If a girl sees a picture in a magazine and wistfully thinks “I’ll never look like that”, not only is she right, but she’s missing the fact that the model doesn’t look like that either.  The image on the page is literally unachievable, yet our children are sucking it in, either as something to aspire to, or as a yardstick by which to judge others and give them value.

When it comes to fantastical images, things get even worse.  Gender dimorphism in Disney is a well-studied phenomenon.  It’s a shame that Brave and Frozen both suffer from it, as they are both uncharacteristically decent films that buck the “pretty girl as prize for macho man/boy doing macho things” mould rather well.

Back in the world of actual humans, there are some who are deciding to reject these artificial ideals and declare “stuff you, I am a person.”  I leave you with Michelle Law’s excellent TEDx talk where she presents a somewhat different image of what female beauty can look like.

 

Ellie Simmonds “courage” poster

My plan is to post an entry to this blog every Tuesday morning, so here we are with the first Tuesday post, which is going to talk a bit about a thing that piqued my interest in all things equality.  I am a member of several privileged groups and, as such, I am insulated from much of the rubbish that so many people face every day.  I hope that, over time, my eyes have been and will be opened (slightly) to the little acts of discrimination that people suffer just because they appear a little different from society’s “default” setting.  I will get things wrong and, when I do, please educate me or, if you are sick and tired of teaching the same lesson ten times a day, just tell me I got it wrong.

To the point: in the run up to the London Olympics and Paralympics, my children’s school had posters up around the place, encouraging the kids to take an interest in sport, and to take an interest in Team GB as they competed in the greatest sporting competitions in the world.  One of the posters showed British swimmer Ellie Simmonds standing on the starting block, about to jump into a pool.  Underneath this picture was the word “Courage” in four languages.  I’ve looked about online for this poster, but I can’t find it.  I did find this poster at Amazon.com, however which is rather similar.  (In case the link dies, it’s a poster of a wheelchair athlete out on a training run underneath the banner “COURAGE”)

So, what’s my problem with these posters?  It’s the default position again.  I am yet to see a poster of Rebecca Adlington on the starting block under the “COURAGE” banner.  Same again with Mo Farah.  A more likely poster featuring either of these two able-bodied athletes would be “VICTORY” or “DEDICATION”.  It takes grit, talent and an awful lot of hard work to compete at the highest level and Rebecca and Mo have that in spades.  They work damn hard and are at the tops of their respective games.

The thing is, Ellie Simmonds works damn hard and is at the top of her game: she earned two gold medals in Beijing, aged 13, and four more medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze) in London.  She gets up at five in the morning and trains for several hours each day, six days a week.  Honestly, how much “COURAGE” does it take for one of the best swimmers in the world to jump into a swimming pool?  Talent, yes.  Dedication, yes.  Drive, yes.  Absolutely.

My problem with the poster is that it implies that a disabled person is, by default, the object of our pity.  It tells us that jumping into a swimming pool is a terrifying thing for a woman who is just over four feet tall.  We are invited to share that fear with the woman in the poster and salute her “COURAGE” in facing that fear because we, if we were saddled with such a debilitating condition ourselves, would just stay in bed.

The bottom line is that we are told to see courage in a disabled athlete where, if it were an able-bodied athlete on the poster, we’d be told to see talent, dedication and an awful lot of hard work.

Where does it all begin?

I discovered, recently, that the one thing that gets me exercised about things is the equality of all people.  I was taken by a picture I saw somewhere on Facebook, I think, that was trying to discourage men from attacking women by telling them that “She is someone’s daughter / wife / friend / cousin” etc.  The picture that got to me had been changed, however.  Everything after the apostrophe had been crossed out, leaving only “She is someone”.  This seems to be the theme that resonates with me: that each one of us is a person and that, in and of itself, is what makes us valuable.  We do not gain our value by being placed relative to other people; we do not gain our value from other people at all.

So that’s what I plan to do here.  I want to explore the ways in which each one of us is valuable and different, and to celebrate the inherent value in each one of us, regardless of disability, economic circumstance, sex, gender, skin-colour, creed, or anything else that can be used to divide us and get us fighting to say who is the best.