4 Aug 2008

I may not be a lady...

...but apparently I'm foul mouthed enough for the powers that be at Dunstable library to prohibit me access to my blog when I tried to logon today in my lunch hour, as apparently it has ’unsuitable content’. It’s always nice to be considered incendiary material merely for writing about women’s rights, although it's disappointing that one of my favourite haunts is implementing such paranoid policies when there's plenty of filth to be found just by grabbing a book off the shelf.

Anyway, this segues vaguely into what I've been thinking about since I read Janet Street-Porter's article in yesterday's Independent about the rise in female violence. Apparently rejecting the constraints of 'ladylike' behaviour has seriously backfired as women and girls begin to emulate the worst aspects of male culture more and more. There are so many troublesome strands to unwind in investigating what leads to a pack of 30 girls assaulting two police officers so badly they needed hospital treatment. But you can bet your bottom dollar somewhere in the analysis, the finger of blame will be pointed at feminism. The claim will go like this: Feminism has made women aggressive, selfish and violent. It has taught women to act like, and want to be like, men. It has turned out a nation of sexually irresponsible, binge-drinking parodies of womanhood, and is responsible for women being more stressed, confused, and dissatisfied than ever. Not to mention the nation of ineffectual 'new men' it has spawned, but that's another story.
So, let's look a little closer at that argument. I can't say I've ever found much in the works of Greer, Friedan, Brownmiller, Steinem, Orbach or Atwood that advocates catfights, happy slapping, a gallon of cider and a sweaty sexual encounter with a stranger as a feminist rite of passage. Is it more the case that feminists went wrong by demanding freedom of expression for women without considering how women might misuse it? First wave feminists were pretty unashamed in setting a high standard of morality for both men and women, identifying correctly that sexual double standards were harming everyone, but incorrectly assuming that the solution was demanding chastity for all until the inevitable monogamous heterosexual union. The fact that the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that chastity or monogamy is now seen as naive and old-fashioned in comparison to racking up anonymous notches on the bedpost is equally harmful. But blaming a radical minority - most of whom will be seen as old, unattractive and deeply unfashionable by young women, in the unlikely event that these young women could even pick Germaine Greer out of a line-up - for the state of today's young women is just wishful thinking by the conservative right. For me, it's simply a sign of how limited the effects of feminism have been, and how much more work there is left to do.

So, if we agree that demands for equal pay, safe abortion and available contraception, protection from sexual violence, the visibility and acceptance of alternative sexual lifestyles and the fight against oppressive Beauty Myths can't realistically be linked to the hordes of snarling, denim-clad young harpies prowling our provincial sreets, who do we take to task? Should the feminists have worked harder, demanded more? As I've said in earlier posts, it seems to me that the majority of young women today couldn't give two hoots about a 'sisterhood' that fought for decades against the most vile of woman-hating and woman-baiting, just so our girls today have the right to walk out of school without a single GCSE and straight into a council estate, double buggy and pitbull soon to follow. The impression I got, during my brief foray into teaching in a comprehensive school, was that feminism was seen as dated, embarrassing and unreasonable. The A-level students seemed potentially receptive to the idea that their comfortable right to learn, earn and wear teeny shorts to class may have been hard-won and still under threat. But the under-16s? Forget it. Loyalty to each other was a facade for constant competition for male attention and approval. Furthermore, some of the most vile behaviour I encountered during my short time in that school was from girls - the male misbehaviour was irritating, but predictable and unsophisticated. The girls, however, went for the jugular when challenged. They knew the power of an undermining remark or the perfect sneer went far beyond the tiresome obviousness of male physical lashing out.

Sadly, I could picture some of these confident, swaggering young jezebels in a few years, and I had a feeling the wind was going to be spectacularly knocked out of their sails. Having eschewed any attempt to knuckle down at school, they'd skip out at 16 with the minimum of, or simply no qualifications, and begin to drift - if they hadn't already dropped out, or become pregnant by the boys they were already sleeping with in a misguided attempt to gain approval or kudos the only way they believed a girl could. I wanted to shake them by their fake-tanned skinny little shoulders, and tell them that trying to compete with the boys will always be a loser's game when biologically you're already damned to draw the short straw in the battle of the sexes. I wanted to tell them to put their smart mouths and razor wits to some use and give themselves the shot at Getting Out that education can give you, instead of pushing themselves along the tracks to clicheville as fast as they could. But, even if you were allowed to be so blunt with kids - and that's not likely in a society where you can't even use the term 'brainstorm' in a classroom - they would only hear fogey-ish mithering, if they heard anything at all.

Parents were definitely to blame in some cases - they would defend the vile behaviour of their female offspring to the hilt, and accuse the teachers of victimising their child. A lot of them seemed to think it wasn't their responsibility to enforce any kind of discipline, and that this could comfortably be left up to the already besieged teachers. But, the bad parenting argument can only go so far...we all know a story or two of the loving, attentive, fair yet firm parents who did their utmost to instil decent morals in their kid, only to turn out an utterly shitty human being nonetheless. So where else does the intensity with which our young women seem to be hurtling towards damaged livers, diseased reproductive organs and lengthy criminal records emanate from?

Interestingly enough, a Tory MP actually came out with some words relevant to this in the news today. It's a frightening phenomenon - the political party that's never quite recovered from Margaret Thatcher making it crystal clear she had no loyalty whatsoever to her sex, has recently made a few right-on murmurings that I find myself agreeing with. Today it was Shadow Children's Secretary Michael Gove, asking quite rightly that we consider the effects of 'men's magazines' (and yes, I would just call them soft porn which is what they are, but for the sake of specificity I'll use the term in quote marks) upon young men. I couldn't really have put it better than Mr Gove did: "Titles such as Nuts and Zoo paint a picture of women as permanently, lasciviously, uncomplicatedly available," he added. "The images they use and project reinforce a very narrow conception of beauty and a shallow approach towards women." And, as I pointed out earlier, in a society where young women are still being taught very little other than how to make themselves as attractive and sexually available as possible, is it surprising that there is no sense of self-esteem, self-respect, solidarity with other girls, or the notion that the approval of obnoxious 15 year old boys actually isn't the nirvana that you should be seeking?
Feminists are often blamed for leaving women exhausted and less well-off via the myth that you can 'have it all' (can someone please find me the exact line and page where this was promised by any feminist, because I'm really getting tired of this misguided myth). Somewhere along the line, younger women have acquired their own twisted version - that equality means drinking as hard, copulating as much, and fighting as willingly, as men do. Is this precisely because, having considered that trying to gain equality by working yourself into the ground is a bit of a mug's game, women are trying tacks that appear more fun? The mindset now seems to be - Well, if men have been fucking and fighting without reproach for so many years, why can't we have a piece of the action too?

But that's exactly what I wanted to tell those arrogant teenage girls. It doesn't work like that. Trying to compete in a game where you're physically and socially destined to lose is not going to impress anyone, improve your life, or further any cause. Is it painfully unfair that women will always be judged more harshly for participating in male behaviour? Of course. As Janet S-P rightly pointed out in her article, the media hysteria about worsening female violence has to be taken with the usual dash of salt - we still know which sex it is that commits the vast majority of violent crime, and that still has to be addressed. But, perhaps us women have to be judged harshly, in order to get it into our heads that This Is Not Equality. 'This' is just emulating the aspects of male behaviour that are responsible for much of female oppression. Few of us would deny that rape, sexual violence and the widespread domestic violence that still kills 2 women a week in this country are the worst products of male violence... so what kind of answer to these problems is it, to resort to hitting new lows of female behaviour? Instead of asking that men take responsibility, pull their socks up and open their behaviour to the same kind of scrutiny that female behaviour is always vulnerable to, we've let women be dragged down to the lowest common denominator. Hey, if you can't beat them, join them!

When did we become so hopeless and disillusioned with the idea that we could be happy, well-adjusted women able to relate intelligently to happy, well-adjusted men? When did treating ourselves and others like dirt in the quest for the most emotionally disconnected sexual encounter become a form of empowered sexual expression? When did being a violent, ignorant malcontent with less self-awareness than a mollusc become a statement of feminism, rather than one of stupidity and self-hatred? Again we witness the twisting of the only thing that is going to truly save women, into the very thing that has caused their downfall. A movement demanding respect, rights and safety for women cannot be blamed for the low self-esteem of the girls who are resorting to violence. But a society that still teaches girls no faith in their own value except as mindless sexual playthings, is fatally foolish if it does not foresee a backlash from the very females whom it's calling useless thick tarts.
(And yes, I'm glad someone finally had a go at men's magazines, even if it had to be a Tory. It's bizarre how long the placing of these melon-breasted manuals on the middle shelves has gone unnoticed. I never see the point in haranguing the underpaid minion behind the counter about their lack of consistent magazine placement, but instead just cover the offending items with copies of Angler's Weekly or Pregnancy Today. I'm far more OK with straight out genuine porn than men's magazines - at least porn admits what it is.)

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