It is International Women’s day and suddenly everyone is talking about women, feminism and equality again. More generally, feminism has recently been all over the media, whether it is the “me too” movement or Greta Gerwig being the single female nominee in the directing category at the Oscars.
Still, in our daily discourse, feminists have not shaken off their stereotypical connotations of men-hating spinsters who shun make-up. The way we think about feminism and other social issues - whether it is animal rights, the fight against racial injustice, LGTBQ rights, or another less publicised claim elevated by these social movement groups - is typically perceived on a spectrum of extremes. Our thinking is biased. We like to neatly categorise people and subconsciously think in stereotypical patterns; and while this may be useful in some cases, it is harmful in more complex situations.
Thinking feminism is mainly about renouncing catcalling, or obscure causes like the "free the nipple" movement, makes it easy to overlook the roots of the problem and what the movement truly stands for. Easy statements such as “but women can vote, women can choose whatever job they want, women can make decisions for themselves, women can say no” ignore the historical and social context of how society expects women to behave; and while some of these claims are true in theory, they are yet to be practically implemented around the world.
Feminism easily seems to be a trivial cause compared to other more pressing issues, especially since feminists have already accomplished so much. But accomplishing a lot is not the same as equality. There is still a long way to go to remove the patriarchal structures of society. It would be great if we had already reached equality; then, feminism would be unnecessary. But it is not.
Aziz Ansari, #metoo, and mainstream feminism
In the last few years, feminism reached the mainstream, with known events such as the imposition of a women quota in managing positions in Germany and, most recently, the me-too campaign, taking place. However, while this Twitter movement nudged feminism into the public debate, the mood of public opinion is slowly tipping against the feminists, starting with the Aziz Ansari story. The comedian was accused of sexual harassment by an anonymous source on a more than questionable news outlet (babe.net) and has started the downfall of yet another Hollywood-inspired social movement.
The #metoo debate is suddenly about the rules and limits of public debates and social movements like feminism as such, instead of what it intended to be: a way for women to feel united, to raise awareness that feeling uncomfortable at a workplace due to comments and actions by male co-workers need not be tolerated. It lifted the taboo on speaking about sexual harassment. This last sentence feels incredibly ridiculous to say out loud. "The taboo on speaking about sexual harassment". Shouldn’t women be capable enough to speak out against harassment? For too many (men), this issue seems silly. Educated men nowadays know women are strong and able to voice their opinion. What took women so long to speak up?
The #metoo debate is suddenly about the rules and limits of public debates and social movements like feminism as such, instead of what it intended to be.
Analogous to the debate about filing a lawsuit after a sexual assault, often the debate swings to protecting individual (male) rights, rather than focusing on the many truthful cases. Naturally, we cannot ignore the harm false accusations or revenge porn may bring. However, this is beside the point. Similarly, with the #metoo campaign, there will always be individuals making use of an outlet to unjustly seek revenge or call out someone, but that does not justify dismissing a much-needed debate about the underlying issues that started the movement.
Why, if women are so capable and clever, are they not able to exercise free will? This question has been raised across social media and, especially after the accusation of Aziz Ansari, saw a big backlash on the media for going one step too far. However, we should not fail to understand the social context this has happened in. It is not a matter of not knowing what is happening, or not being willing to say something, but a matter of what is socially desirable for women and what is not. On a smaller scale, women have been called “sweetie” at their workplace (if not worse), which is condescending and degrading, even if it is unintentional.
This does not mean that no women can be called sweetie by any man ever again, but nicknames and pet-names for female colleagues influences workplace hierarchies in nuanced ways. In another instance, a lot of women receive flowers for International Women’s Day, often given by their bosses and male co-workers. While this is a nice gesture, delve a little deeper into this symbol and you may find it somewhat insulting. To appreciate women and International Women’s Day, a debate about gender inequality at the workplace, or the gender pay gap, would do better than gifting a stereotypical female symbol. Small gestures, phrases, nicknames and symbols - most of them without any harmful intention - reinforce stereotypes every day.
The power structures of male domination in society and especially in the workplace, often reflected in subtleties and expressions, pave the way for a habitual consideration of systematically seeing women as inferior. This prevailing attitude becomes problematic when women are not taken seriously when raising issues of harassment or being discouraged by their surroundings to speak out about powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein.
Thinking of feminism as headlines about Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein is just one side of the multidimensional perspective of feminism. It is, just as any other theory or school of thought, more than what first meets the eye. Negative associations besmirch feminism. It has become comparable to perceptions of militant-left wing activism, encapsulating everything from a welfare state, to communist, lighting cars on fire and declaring anarchy against oppressive government regimes.
There are silly streams of feminism like the "free the nipple" campaign advocating to lift the ban on displaying female nipples on social media such as Instagram, or Hollywood-inspired causes that give the starlets some social issues to talk about at the Oscars (for those who forgot, last years’ Oscars were inspired by racial injustice - with the hastag #OscarsSoWhite becoming popular -, a topic which seems to have already been somewhat forgotten this year).
However, there is a much wider philosophy and academic discipline behind what is discussed in the media. Equating every feminist with the stereotype of a women flashing Heidi Klum at the finale of Germany’s next Topmodel is like saying that since Donald Trump ran on the Republican ballots, he now represents what republicans stand for.
A time of change
As clear as the problem seems to be, the remedies are unclear. Some advocate the education of women, teaching them how to say no, whereas others claim men should be educated not to touch women inappropriately. This has led some men to be so confused as to mockingly declare to never talk to a woman again in fear of saying something wrong or untoward repercussion.
These social separations between men and women, however, serve little but to keep us in a thought pattern of men and women as inherently socially different creatures. We should be able overcome this way of pigeonholing, and as a society we need to change.
We still raise women stereotypically to be accommodating, soft and happy, whereas men are thought to be strong, decisive and not to display emotions; girls wear pink and boys wear blue. The internalization of these stereotypically “feminine” and “masculine” features nudges us in a typical direction. Therefore we - as a society - need to reconsider our everyday biases pushing women in one direction and men in another. This is a time of change, and it will not happen overnight.
The grid girl issue
Every movement trying to overthrow old and rigid structures does not happen at the click of one’s fingers. Obstacles will always arise and there is rarely a “right” or “wrong” thing to do. What seems to be the right and progressive course of action for some, often is a step backward on an infringement on equality for others.
Social separations between men and women serve little but to keep us in a thought pattern of men and women as inherently socially different creatures.
This is easily illustrated with the “Grid Girls” in Formula One (or even more classy “pit babes”). The sport recently announced it would get rid of the grid girls - the women walking around holding the names of the drivers - in the name of equality.
This issue has caused debate among fans. Have feminists gone too far? A hard question to answer. These girls are now out of very good paying jobs and need to seek other areas of employment. On the one side, actual grid girls like Rebecca Cooper speak out against the company’s decision: "Ridiculous that women who say they are 'fighting for women's rights' are saying what others should and shouldn't do, stopping us from doing a job we love and are proud to do."
This voices the obvious issue of a group of people thinking they know what is best for all of us (sounds familiar? then you may work for the IMF). On the other side, grid girls, and their often (even though not always) tight clothes reflect the image many people have of women, as pretty and not good enough to be in the race cars themselves.
If this representation of women is repeated every day and over generations, it reinforces gender stereotypes. The issue of feminism is not about women not being able to work as grid girls, but of women not having to work as grid girls, it’s about creating equal opportunities.
It would be great to live in a world where not everybody has a certain gender in mind whether they think of jobs such as lawyer, doctor, or CEO, versus nurse, model or running the household. It would be great if we were all actually equal. I would much rather live in a world where feminism is unnecessary. It would be great to live in a world where we do not need movements such as Black Lives Matter, because the importance of these issues - equality for all humans - seems so painfully obvious that they are not part of reality.
Whenever I hear someone complain about feminism going too far, the words of German author and former Yale University lecturer Carolin Emcke, winner of the German Peace Prize for her book “Against Hate”, come to mind:
"Maybe Jews or homosexuals or women could be content and quiet, for once; after all, they’ve already been given so much. It’s as if equality has reached its limits. As if women or gay people might be allowed equal rights up to a certain point, but beyond that, enough is enough. Completely equal? Well, that would be going too far. After all,
then everyone would be … equal."
In this spirit: happy International Women’s Day. TMM