A Quick Thought on Gender

Yesterday, while my boyfriend was in the shower, I was just hanging around on the internet, as I am prone to do when given free time. Following a trail of links that began on Tumblr, I found this article which then linked to this article. I thought both of them made good points, and when my boyfriend came back I asked him to read them so I could see what he thought.

Now, my boyfriend is a genuine certified Good Guy. So when I showed him the first article, his response was essentially to say ‘Yeah, I agree, but isn’t it all stuff we’ve heard before?’ On the one hand, it gives me hope that not all men are awful, but on the other hand, he also said something else. When I tried to assert to him that feeling the urge to catcall women on the street or otherwise provide unsolicited commentary on their appearance is misogynistic because we live in a world where women’s bodies exist for the benefit of men, and thus any presentation of the female body must automatically be an invitation upon men to provide judgement, he simply said, ‘construction workers aren’t that smart.’

I might be about to engage in some serious misrepresentation here, but I want to try to explain boyfriend’s point. He told me that men don’t think about cat-calling women in the way that women think about it. I said I’d been shouted at on the street a number of times, and he used a particular example of a bunch of young men in a ute. According to him, men don’t yell at women because they feel the need to compliment the individual woman; in fact, the individual woman is more or less irrelevant. The men who cat-call women in front of their friends do so as a show of dominant masculinity; a demonstration of strength and manliness designed to maintain or further their place in the social hierarchy. It’s not about respect or disrespect towards women, because women are seen as ‘other’. The men simply aren’t considering the feelings or reaction of the woman at all when making the decision.

As I pointed out to him, this is a great example of the patriarchy: the men may not intend to cause any harm in what they’re doing – they’re just not thinking about it very deeply – but if we were living in a culture which really valued women, we’d have been teaching men since they were small children that disrespecting people in this manner, regardless of their gender, is not okay. But regardless of who is right in this particular argument, one thing really stood out to me in the way that he had phrased his point: women are ‘other’. Further, they are not a part of the male social hierarchy and thus don’t understand how the act of harassing women fits in. Then I read this article about religious gender segregation and got thinking again.

We hear it all the time: opposites attract. Women and men fit together in a way that women and women or men and men simply don’t. Children need a mother and a father. Men are from mars, women are from venus. Men are leaders, women are nurturers. That’s all just off the top of my head and I could probably go on for hours. Why are we so obsessed with highlighting ‘differences’ between men and women? Why is it so difficult for us to see validity in people who choose to be somewhere on the gender spectrum that isn’t strictly ‘man’ or ‘woman’? Why is it only now that we’re starting to see equality of genders? Why are we unable to recognise that we are all people and that the similarities and differences between individuals are far more pronounced (and probably more interesting) that the broadly generalisable ‘differences’ between genders? So much of what we feel and think and experience is shared that it seems somewhat ludicrous to try to divide people into two ‘opposite’ groups based on their reproductive organs.

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Fear and Gender

One of the strangest things that has ever happened to me occurred a few days ago. Once or twice a week I go for a jog through the suburbs near my house. Occasionally people stare at me from their cars for a little longer than is appropriate, but I have never felt unsafe. On Wednesday, as I was jogging along the road – with my headphones in, I might add -, a man stopped his car, got out, gestured towards me and, when I reacted, began speaking to me. I don’t remember ever seeing this man before in my life, but his first words to me were “you work at [my workplace]!” I affirmed that yes, that was true. He then began a long-winded story in which he alleged that someone I had been in a car with the week before had said something nasty about him, which he knew because he had the ability to lip-read.

Without stopping to allow me to confirm or deny this observation he had apparently made, he went on to tell me about his rare and confusing neurological condition and the effects it has had on his life. He continued to assert that he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t trying to be weird, that he’s actually a pretty intelligent guy, that he’s not paranoid, that he doesn’t take things personally any more… All while he appeared to be trying to politely berate me about the fact that I shouldn’t stand for it when other people say unkind things about him.

All I could think about while he was speaking to me was ‘who will hear me if I scream? If I go missing how long will it take someone to notice? Can I run faster than this guy? Could I hurt him badly enough that I would be able to get away if he tried something?’

I don’t think that he stopped me on the street because I’m a young woman. He certainly didn’t make any kind of sexual remarks or advances. But my mental reaction to the situation was absolutely gendered.

This is what happens when, instead of teaching boys and men not to sexually victimise others, we teach women a culture of ‘risk management’. Don’t go out alone at night, don’t wear revealing clothing, don’t drink alcohol or take drugs: basically, live your life in fear (or not at all). This doesn’t just disadvantage women, it disadvantages men. How many men are there in the world that have been looked at with suspicion, brushed off, avoided or been otherwise adversely reacted to by women – even when their intentions were completely non-sexual – because of the way we talk about things like sexual assault? Every man becomes a potential threat if you keep telling women that they might become a victim at any stage.

I wish I hadn’t felt threatened by this man, but I did. It was clear to me that he didn’t have the best social skills, and it’s certainly unfortunate that any person thinks that they can just stop a stranger on the street and talk at them for fifteen minutes. That’s just bad manners. But the thing I hate the most is that I’ve grown up in a culture of fear that makes me wary of people who are otherwise perfectly nice, just because they’re one gender and I’m another.

Blow whistle on harassment – Hobart Mercury

More intelligent, more accomplished women – and probably men – have been saying this stuff for decades. But Bec Fitzgibbon gets it published in a small-town newspaper and suddenly everyone is all ears?

It’s no wonder that I get my news from Tumblr rather than my local rag.

That said: yes, it’s an important message and a good article. But it shouldn’t take something like this to make people realise that this is how life works.

She’s not perfect, but I’m still proud of our Prime Minister

After her incredible Question Time speech in Parliament on October 9th – the news and YouTube video of which have apparently gone viral – Prime Minister Gillard is receiving, well, even more attention than usual. Many people, men and women alike, are praising the Prime Minister’s courage, as well as her oratory skills, in calling out Tony Abbott and others on ridiculous statements they have made in the past.

It’s true that those whose watched the entirety of the day unfold, and not just the Prime Minister’s speech, have a somewhat different (and more cynical) view of the whole affair. But nothing even comes close to the bile that Peter Hartcher today expressed in his column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I beg you, please read the whole article, but just in case you’re lazy (like me) I’m going to extract a few key quotes.

“If there was one thing that should have been different about Gillard’s prime ministership, it should have been that Australia’s first female prime minister should have been a flag bearer for women.”

In the next paragraph he goes on to say: “She started on her long trajectory of electoral disillusionment when, bit by bit, she revealed herself to be just another politician.”

And then: “If Gillard will not defend respect for women, what will she defend? Just another politician indeed.”

I have three points to make here.
1. Hartcher seems to be implying that Julia Gillard should have been a certain kind – a different kind – of prime minister simply by virtue of her gender. I would argue that every politician is ‘just another politician’. Prime Minister Gillard doesn’t have an obligation to act any certain way simply because she is a woman. Yes, it is inspiring to know that we as a country and a society have advanced enough that we can elect  a woman to our highest office. But Julia Gillard is a human being just like any other, and she is constrained by the workings of her party and the wider political arena just like any other prime minister would be. Much like those who label women ‘shrill’, ‘hysterical’ and ‘aggressive’ when they act just like men, Hartcher seems to be implying that by virtue of her gender Ms Gillard ought to somehow be better, more principled, less jaded than the men who have preceded her. I was alive for less than two months of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of Britain, but I’m sure if anyone told her she should have ruled the country differently because she was a woman she would have had a cow.

2. Julia Gillard is a flag-bearer for women. Did you somehow miss her entire speech? Fifteen solid minutes of calling out the sexist, misogynist pigs that Ms Gillard and every other woman in the country has to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to tell me that my prime minister is somehow not sticking up for my rights the day after this speech really just makes me think you’re an imbecile.

3. Ms Gillard wasn’t defending Peter Slipper. In fact, she quite explicitly called out Tony Abbott for his continuing close friendship with Mr Slipper, which all went down the drain – probably for political point-scoring – when this whole text messaging scandal emerged. The Prime Minister, in no uncertain terms, condemned Mr Slipper’s actions in sending those text messages.

I’ll leave you with this delighful snapshot of another wonderful human being – a commenter on Hartcher’s article – who seems to think that femaleness is a reason to be a whole different kind of Prime Minister.

The only other thing I have to say right now is go and read this article because it is utterly fantastic, more comprehensive and eloquent than anything I could ever manage.

  • Things about me:

    My name is Mel, I'm a final year law student from Australia. I'm interested in politics, feminism, sociology and science, among other things. You can find my Twitter account below; I am more active there than here.

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