Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Wither art thou, Sexism?

I got called a cunt yesterday.

I know! Not really that unusual: we get called that, and worse, every day, for the crime of being a lady and talking about it. And as street harassment goes, it was a fairly unambiguous, not particularly painful episode. A dude was smoking outside the pub on the corner of my road - it's a nice little boozer, serves curried goat and fried locusts, shows football and is the perfect place to curl up with an afternoon Guinness and coddle your hangover - and as I walked up, he started singing at me, something along the lines of "Oo-ooh honey baby, you're so fine you blow my mind I'd like to put my penis in your vagina, yeah yeah". I'm paraphrasing a little, but you get my drift.

He asked for the time. Because this was approximately the fifteen-thousand-and-twenty-ninth time this has happened, I made the snap decision not to engage: you give him the time, he asks your name. You tell him your name, he asks for your number. You refuse, he follows you to the tube. And what then? So no. Just, "no."


Now, there's something about the instant switch from "you are a sexy lady!" to "BITCHDYKECUNTWHORE", the turn-on-a-dime reversal that happens when you don't simper and giggle at a guy's advances, that somehow never fails to amuse me. In a wry, bitter, what kind of a fucking world do we live in sort of way. So I burst out laughing, and turned round, and mentally flipped through my Dealing With Sexual Harassment Survival Tips garnered over the years - Remain Polite, Name The Behaviour, Do Not Get Angry Or Use Profanity, etc - and went for the ultimate come-back: "well, FUCK you sideways."


I'm never sure what I think about that word. I never really understood why it was officially ratified as The Worst Word Of All The Words: I've challenged people for using "pussy" specifically to mean "crap and weak, like a woman", but "cunt", when it's bandied about between men, just doesn't make me feel anything in particular. These things are subjective; it's not rocket science.

When it's directed at a woman by a man, though, it feels like a punch in the gut.


A dear friend once asked me - long ago, before we got close - whether I'd ever experienced sexism. I'd been talking about The Feminism a lot, and I guess he wanted to know if I had some sort of personal stake in it. More than, you know, just being girl. I was utterly floored at the time - what are you asking? Have I been raped? Have I been beaten? Have I lost a job because I'm female? I haven't, but imagine if I had: if I say "no", I lose the argument; if I say "yes" I'm revealing intensely personal information to a pub full of my colleagues.

But also because it was such a ridiculous question. Have I ever experienced sexism? As if Sexism happens as isolated, discrete episodes, and then you go back to living your Normal Life. As if it's not there, all the time, colouring every single conversation you have. It's 10:40 am, and today I have been offered a seat on the tube because I'm a woman, been groped in the queue for the escalator, given up on an argument because nice girls don't answer back and because the dude in question is actually incapable of conceding to a woman, and had my interest in football been ridiculed because girls don't really care. (OH YOU BIG MAN, EXPLAIN THE OFFSIDE RULE TO ME AGAIN, MY POOR LADY BRAIN CANNOT COMPREHEND SUCH COMPLEXITY.) That's just off the top of my head. They're only the most obvious examples. It's ingrained into the fabric of our lives.

But for well-meaning people who don't live with this reality, the big blatant clear-cut Episodes Of Sexism are a necessary introduction. Hollaback and the like are fantastic resources, but you don't go looking for them unless you're already aware of the problem. So today, when people ask how I am, I will be answering:

"Good, ta, new job, new eyes, nearly Christmas, oh but yesterday I declined to give a guy the time, so he called me a cunt."

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Back of the net, back of the queue

In episode 2 of A Romantic Comedy About The Patriarchy (title provisional): people go out of their way to show you the sexism. Not in a malicious way, not trying to get a rise out of you (though that happens too, oh joy), but because it's the sort of thing you're interested in and they're trying to help out. Which is fun, usually: you're braced for it, so it rarely hurts that much, but also bizarre: someone who cares about you is basically saying "Look! Someone thinks you're less than human: check it out!"

(I'm guilty of this myself. Memorable example: "Look at this! The racism!" "Uh huh. I don't really want to read that now." "But look! It is racism!" "You're being a dick." "I am? Oh. I really am.")

All of which is a long preamble to an article my manpanion sent me, on today's "sexist man is also pretty cavalier about gay rights" shocker. Yes, that's right, Sepp Blatter's still a dick. WHO KNEW.

This is a dude who's lamented the "modern slavery" of footballers (how hard! it must be! to earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a week! And how totally comparable to other victims of modern slavery!) and who has suggested that we could generate more interest in women's football by introducing "tighter shorts and low cut shirts". And now Captain Sensitivity Training has chuckled away concerns about how unstraight fans are likely to fare at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar - where the gay is illegal - suggesting that they simply "refrain from any sexual activities" during the tournament. If Putin banned all penis-in-vagina sex tomorrow, I'm sure Blatter would be totally cool with frisky fans getting slapped with a hefty fine and thrown in prison for their socially-sanctioned shenanigans in 2018.

Then again, I guess to him it is quite the laughing matter: football is so "macho", after all, so surely gay men won't be interested, and there aren't any female fans, anywhere (as you can learn in one five minute Sky Sports ad break any day you choose), so luckily no one will be required to repress one of their most fundamental human drives for the pleasure of watching a deeply boring England campaign! Score!

That said, I'm a bit wary of features which focus on how crap it will be for foreign fans having to hide their sexuality for the duration of their stay: going to a country where you are officially an abomination would be rubbish. Being an LGBT Qatari person: probably worse.

Oh yeah. And the corruption thing. But if I talk about that it'll be obvious that I'm just a bad loser.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Dawson's Creek and rape culture: the connection they thought couldn't be made

Here's a strange and possibly embarrassing admission: what I'm looking for in relaxation-television is, pretty much, a tragic, star-cross'd, I-love-you-but-we-can't-but-I-love-you type relationship. Whether the dude is best friend of the lady's recently-paralysed boyfriend, best friends with the lady's ex, from the wrong side of the tracks and constantly punching the lady's ex, wrongly accused of murder and best friends with the lady's ex,  or just a vampire, the presence of such a storyline is a major factor in whether I will get hooked on a TV series.

I mean: you are reading the words of someone who paid actual money to own a series of Dawson's Creek. As an adult! If you want to stop reading right here, I would not blame you.

So I was watching Friday Night Lights (oh Higgins, follow Lyla to college, FOR LOVVVE) and it suddenly clicked, in one of those "how was this not blindingly obvious?" moments, that the one thing all these storylines have in common (apart from exes, or often vampires) is: it is always the dude following the lady around saying I LOVE YOU LET'S MAKE LOVVVE, and the lady saying I can't I can't OH WAIT I CAN, because if it was the other way around we would say "damn, pushy lady, get your ensnaring ovaries off that poor guy!"

We frame the male pursuit of women as natural, as sexy; a guy forcing a kiss on an unwilling woman until she relents because she wants it really is shown as hot, not as assault. Bombarding a woman with flowers and impromptu Frankie Valli performances and breaking into her car to leave presents are shown as romantic, "persistent", not as stalking. This dynamic is taken to its logical extreme in Buffy: "I know you felt it. I'm going to make you feel it." And with that one line, the show lays the grotesque underpinnings of this trope bare.

I mean: it's a fantasy. We can suspend disbelief and enjoy it because we accept the internal logic of the storyline, which is that the girl does welcome his attentions, and so whatever the guy does in the cause of True Love is justified: the fact that in reality these would be less romantic gestures and more arrestable offences doesn't matter, because the story of "I love you / no no I can't / I love you, you love me too / I do! I love you too! Let's have lots of hot sex but then break up because the world is against us but I will love you foreverrr" makes for better TV than "I like you / you too / let's get drunk and have sex and after a few months observe that we're feeling a lot less frisky and a lot more concerned with who does the washing up". What we want from TV and what we want from our lives are not the same thing. (Fact.)

I'm not a big fan of policing fantasy; I don't think anyone is, really: I'd imagine we can all agree on the basic ground rules that "if you're not hurting anyone and all your sex-shenanigans involve only consenting grown-ups, then whatever gets you off is lovely, well done". I don't think the fact that I'm susceptible to this particular romantic narrative makes me a bad person, or a bad feminist, or a rape-apologist, and I don't think it's something I need to fix. But I find it interesting to wonder why it has such a pull on me, where it comes from, what it means.

And I keep coming back to this:
Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.
Pursuit, conquest; yielding, submission. They exist on a fictional continuum from Ryan Atwood the loveable rogue (with his complete lack of facial expression - a running theme, perhaps?) to Spike the attempted rapist; the fire at the PG-13 end of the spectrum relies on the ugliness at the other.

Obviously I will still be rooting for those two crazy kids to work it out somehow (but you LOVE EACH OTHERRR), because my love of US-high-school-centric soap operas exists somewhere separate from my intellectual patriarchy-bashing brain: I can be merrily dissecting the troublesome messages purveyed by a show while simultaneously getting swept away by the incredible heart-tugging cheese of it. There are people who refuse to watch TV with me because it can be hard to hear the dialogue over my never-ending mutters of "oh right, so every time you kiss her she pushes you away and says DON'T KISS ME, so obviously the sensible thing to do is carry on kissing her? WHO SAYS ROMANCE IS DEAD".

Then again, these people might just be refusing to watch TV with me because I am watching Dawson's Creek.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Introducing Dr Dickface McBullyo, the NHS's finest

Good gracious, how time flies: you trip, you fall, you get laser eye surgery and a new job, and suddenly it's been two weeks since you've last shared your Very Important Thoughts with the world at large. So what else has been big news in the Feminist House of Alarmist Llamas?

Apparently The British lie to their doctors, for a start: specifically MORE WOMEN THAN MEN (a difference of a whole 6%!) downplay how much stress they are under. Yeah, colour me stunned.

A short story about talking to your GP about stress: to protect my doctor's anonymity, I will call him by the nom de wanque "Dr Dickface McBullyo".

PATIENT: Hi there, medical practitioner. I have been experiencing some abnormal and uncomfortable heart rhythms. Maybe we could check that out?

DR DICKFACE MCBULLYO: I see from your file that you have a history of depression. You're having panic attacks.

PATIENT: No, I have had panic attacks in the past, these are not panic attacks. Also, when the odd heart rhythms are occurring, I'm not panicked, and you'd think I'd notice if I was under so much stress that my body was initiating a fight/flight response, no?

DR DICKFACE MCBULLYO grabs PATIENT's arm and points vigorously at five-year-old self-harm scars.

DR DICKFACE MCBULLYO: What are these, then? You did these yourself, didn't you? You're having panic attacks. I can prescribe some anti-depressants.

Two weeks later, PATIENT ends up in Accident & Emergency having passed out on the tube. Because of an abnormal heart rhythm!

And so begins the medical chapter in a seemingly endless career of being patronised by people who are stupider than I am.

So what have we learned from this particular scene? We have learned that Doctor always Knows Best, especially if his diagnostic process is not hindered by any extraneous information like "symptoms" or "the patient's subjective experience" or even, god forbid, "doing some tests and detecting a fairly common heart abnormality". We have learned that if you have ever experienced mental illness, you are automatically stupid, untrustworthy, and unable to reliably describe your own health - and we have learned that any health complaints you may have in the future are indisputably a result of that mental illness. We have learned that the best 'bedside manner' for such irrational crazy types as yourself is to shout at you while grabbing your body parts without warning or permission. We have learned that your opinions mean nothing, your reasoning is impaired, and your personal space can be invaded at any time.

So yeah, if you're stressed, you should totally tell your GP. That always ends well.