Women in Politics

I just watched the 7-way leaders’ debate on ITV. I am holding L and my arm has gone dead so this post will be a short one (my husband is asking if I am blogging to say he drank too much wine or if the people in this commercial would never be able to afford a house…)

Just to say that I think the three women, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett, and Leanne Wood, did well and were a refreshing change from the Oxbridge educated men standing for the main parties (I would add “white,” but then the women are all white too).

Interesting to note that the Greens were also the only party to mention the unfairness of the current UK immigration law re: non-EU family members and the income restriction.

L is now screaming for milk. We need more women (and diversity in general) in politics.

That is all.


The Pitfalls of Present Buying: Girls’ Toys/Boys’ Toys

M went to a friend’s birthday party yesterday. For some reason I find it easier to buy presents for little boys than for little girls (this was a girl’s party). Without knowing the child personally (and their likes and dislikes) I am always forced into the dilemma of whether to buy one of the very clearly gender-specific toys or to try to find something relatively gender-neutral. I usually opt for the latter if I can and this time settled on a board game. I hovered for a while torn between that and a Disney princess pets colouring book, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

The problem is this. I know that girls and boys can play with whatever toys they want and would not think twice about buying my sons “girls’ toys” if they wanted them (or even if they didn’t – against my husband’s evidentially better judgement I persuaded my mum to buy M a doll’s house last Christmas – he has shown exactly zero interest in playing with it, but then to be fair he shows zero interest in most of his other non-electronic toys). I don’t know what other kids’ parents think about this though and without knowing the child or the parents I don’t want to buy a “boys’ toy” for a girl or a “girls’ toy” for a boy in case they just think wtf is this? When they open it.

“But there’s no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys” I hear you cry. I was raised with this same refrain in my ears: I remember the Christmas that my little brother got the same dolls as me and the weird science/motorised building toy my dad once bought me. I admire my mother for trying to raise us in a gender-blind way (and obviously shaping my thinking on the subject) but I think the wider culture is winning this particular battle.

How can I honestly say to my little boy that there’s no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys when the local Morrison’s has sections labelled “Boys’ Toys” and “Girls’ Toys”: the former comprising Lego, Hot Wheels, and action figures and the latter dolls, kittens, and pink stuff. I still tell him that there’s no such thing as gender-specific toys, but to do so I have to go into an explanation of why there are toys aimed at boys and girls and about marketing strategies and all manner of other things that make his eyes glaze over.

What I find most pernicious is the prevalence of “girl versions” of regular toys. Lego Friends is a particular irritant. Lego is Lego; it does not need to be Polly-Pocketified. There are enough dolls out there without Lego jumping on the bandwagon. That being said, if anyone wants to play with Lego Friends then that’s fine, but it does make kids think there is “boys’ Lego” and “girls’ Lego” – another cultural construction for conscientious parents to unpick. Also the pink-and-purple versions of things such as car garages. The message being that it is ok for girls to play with “boys’ toys” so long as they are pink. (And yes, I realise this is the issue a lot of women had with Labour’s pink van – whether we like it or not, the colour pink is politicised).

I don’t have a daughter (yet) but when I do I will face the dilemma of whether to buy gender-neutral or “boys'” toys for her, or whether to give into the pink princess crap. Whichever choice I make will shape how she develops and thinks about toys and about the world, but more than that, the culture shapes this for kids anyway despite what we do as parents. Some girls love and embrace the pink princess stuff, but would they do so if it wasn’t rammed down their throats by the consumer culture? Some girls embrace so-called Tomboy-ism, but would they do this without conscientious parents trying hard to counteract the pink princess culture?

Perhaps the best plan is to introduce kids to all sorts of toys and to explain the marketing strategies (even if it does make them glaze over) and then let them choose what they want to play with and go with that. Some little girls love the girly stuff and as parents, why should we deny our kids what they want to play with?

In the absence of knowing a kid’s likes and dislikes, however, I am loathe to act as one more agent of the consumer culture, forcing them into the pink princess or tough guy mould. Which is why I put down the princess colouring book and chose the board game.

What’s So Threatening About A Pink Van?

I have been following the “pink van debate” with interest and can’t help but add my two cents (or is that two pence?)

I think all the publicity and the debate over the colour is not a bad thing for Labour – it is getting people talking about what Labour are doing and getting them lots of free airtime.

On the issue of the colour itself I can see both sides of the argument: on the one hand, pink = Barbie and girlie girlie and culturally enforced notions of femininity. As someone who is eternally irritated by pink girls’ toys (like when they make perfectly normal toys pink to “appeal” to girls) I can see why pink is a bad colour. On the other hand Labour women’s use of hot pink could be seen as a reclamation of the colour for feminism (if they are even proclaiming this a feminist campaign, which I am not sure they are). People reclaim stuff from the oppressors all the time, why not the colour pink? Or it is just one of the One Nation colours and they really didn’t think it would be an issue. Oh, and some women, ironically or otherwise, really do like pink. So there’s that.

Whatever the deal with the pink van though, the point is that the colour isn’t, or shouldn’t, be the issue here. The issue is that female Labour politicians are driving around the country to talk to women and some people seem to take umbrage to this. The debate about the colour seems to be a clever way to try to demean and undermine what could actually be an important turning point in politics.

Politicians in the US have been dividing the electorate into its component parts for years now. The concept of “the female voter” is not a new one at least in the States. Perhaps that’s why I am not particular incensed or amazed by Labour’s approach. Travelling around to talk to voters is also common in the States – if politicians can’t or won’t connect to the people then why the hell should we vote for them?

More importantly, I think, is the issue of whether some people are threatened by Labour’s approach of sending female politicians to talk to women. What could be more dangerous, after all, than women talking to women? During the second wave of feminism, at least in the States (I know, I know, I will read up on British history here soon) one of the biggest agents of change was groups of women getting together and just talking – something called consciousness raising. Women talking about what united them as women. Women talking about what was wrong with and in society. Women talking about how to change things. Obviously, “women’s issues” are not necessarily the same across class or racial lines. These (mostly white, mostly middle-class) second wave feminists came under fire for not speaking to problems that affected poor or non-white women. But talking started a conversation and enabled an atmosphere in which other women could have their own conversations, and debates, and arguments.

So let’s talk about Labour’s women campaign. Let’s pick it apart and debate it. But for goodness sake don’t just debate the colour. How about talking about why some people are so threatened by the idea of women talking to women that they have to try to subvert it by labelling it patronising? I would argue that women DO have issues in common that they can and should talk about and that politicians should pay attention to. That is not to say that women’s and men’s interest is entirely different, but the public sphere is still predominantly male-dominated and I for one applaud Labour for trying to create spaces where women can talk, as women, and get involved in politics.

We don’t live in a society where women are equal to men, no matter how you define equality. Personally, I find the argument that there is no reason for women to talk as women, to women and for women in what is still a patriarchal, male-dominated and male-oriented society and culture much more patronising and damaging than Labour’s choice of van colour.

Same Shit; Different Century

I dislike the internet (ironic I know). I dislike most modern technology really and tend to stick to the news websites, Facebook, and the odd Google search. So I am always vaguely disconcerted (and sometimes just plain horrified) when I read news articles about how terrible some things on the internet really are. Like this article from Lindy West about internet trolls. I remember reading about the online rape rape threats received by Stella Creasy MP but obviously put it out of my mind until reading this latest article.

The attempts by internet trolls to silence women online (as described by Lindy West) is tantamount to the outrage expressed when women first started speaking in public/entering public debate. The idea that “that’s just how the internet is” and Ms. West’s counter-claim that it’s not how the internet is for men is telling.

How many women in the pre-Second Wave era quietly accepted (even if they were seething inside) that “that’s just the way the world is” when their boss groped their bum, or when their husband raped them, or when they had to give up work after having a baby?

Just because the world is a certain way does not mean that it should be that way. That’s the same now as it was fifty or a hundred years ago and the internet is no exception. When enough people deem something to be unacceptable, it ceases to be acceptable. It blows my mind what passes for acceptable (or at least too difficult to deal with) in modern-day online and media discourse.

No More Page 3?

Reading the papers (ok, not the papers, the news apps on my phone!) last night and this morning, it seems as though we may be celebrating the end of page 3. This is no small thing, but not a blanket victory for feminism/women’s activism (whatever you want to call it – don’t even get me started on the minefield that is terminology). According to the BBC article I read on the subject, The Sun has apparently “quietly dropped” the topless models, but has featured celebs in their undies/bikinis. There have also been some former page 3 models commenting that they thought page 3 was fine (well go figure) and one saying that “so called ‘feminists’ really annoy me. Telling girls they shouldn’t do page 3 is NOT being a feminist; women should do WHATEVER they want!!” Um… no. Sorry, but whatever your definition of “feminism” (and I would have to read several scholarly books and probably hundreds of articles before I could even frame an answer as to what, exactly, constitutes “feminism” in modern Britain) it certainly is not, simply, women doing WHATEVER they want.

If a woman chooses to be a porn star, or a glamour model, or a prostitute, then yes, technically, that is her choice, but it does not automatically follow that this is an empowering choice. The choices that some women make within a sexist and male-dominated culture may work for them, but that does not preclude other women (and men) from challenging the dominant culture. The dominant culture is not inherently good, right, or acceptable just because it is dominant. The fact that it is the dominant culture and “the norm” is about the balance of power within society. To those who disagree with me, I would say: it is your choice to be on page 3, to buy The Sun for page 3, or to have no strong feelings about it one way or another; it is my choice to see page 3 as representative of a sexist and inherently damaging media culture and to think that said culture should be challenged.

That some women gain a sense of satisfaction from baring all on page 3 does not mean that the media culture is not sexist and damaging. We all (men and women) make choices within a culture that frames available choices for us. So, for example, a man could not “make the choice” to be on page 3 of the Sun showing off his penis, because that choice is not available to him. Nor is (was) it available to women deemed by the Sun’s editorial team to be too old, fat, flat-chested, or otherwise outside of the parameters of what constitutes a “page 3 girl.” Women who choose to be glamour models, strippers, prostitutes, porn stars and page 3 girls are exercising a choice, but it is a choice that is made within the constraints of a society that portrays women as sex-objects.

I therefore reject the argument that whatever women choose to do is empowering/feminism. No. It isn’t. It is a choice to to be a glamour model and women should be free to make that choice, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the media and the culture in the UK (and elsewhere) is overwhelmingly sexist. Whether or not individuals consider that to be a problem has everything to with early life experiences of living in our culture.

To grow up in a sexist culture without strong role models who challenge the dominant culture leads to unquestioning  acceptance of the culture. Whether or not people choose to “see” sexism seems to be a matter of debate and of personal choice (I got Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates for Christmas and she makes the argument that most people refuse to acknowledge or see that there is a problem even when it is staring them in the face) but just because some (most?) people refuse to see it does not mean that it isn’t there.

The Sun will no doubt refuse to acknowledge any reason for getting rid of page 3; they may well reinstate it and revel in what turns out to be a publicity stunt. The editors of a “newspaper” whose marketing strategy is to sell the objectification of women are unlikely to give credit, or a platform, to the women and men of the No More Page 3 campaign.

The lesson here nonetheless is that action gets results. Not all of the time; but sometimes. Sometimes, enough people think that something is wrong enough to take a stand and that stand makes a difference. Sometimes success is informed by and buoyed by the failures that came before. My favourite period of US history (I studied US history; alas I need to brush up on British history) is the period of the civil rights movement and of second-wave feminism. Civil rights activism and women’s activism/feminism predated this period of course, but it was then that the media paid attention and things really gained momentum. The story portrayed in the media and in popular history is not the whole story, but there is no doubt that during this period in history, enough people came together to say “this is not right and it has to change” and through their words and actions, they forced change.

Change does not just happen; people have to make change happen. Sometimes a small vanguard can grow into a mass movement. By changing the culture, we change what our kids learn from the media and from the culture around them (of course, a lot of people bring their children up in opposition to the mainstream, sexist, culture, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to?). By changing the culture, we make it so that things that were once “the norm” seem ridiculous/horrifying in retrospect. Who, now, would argue (in public) that segregation was a good thing, or that gay men should be imprisoned? Not many people, because a) attitudes have changed and b) overt racism and homophobia is no longer given a platform in the mainstream media. That’s not to deny that it still exists (of course it does) but to say that it is no longer socially acceptable.

There is no reason that sexism cannot go the same way. We need to get to a point where it is not acceptable to portray women in the media (or anywhere in public) in a sexist and derogatory way. The end of page 3 (if that is what it actually is) is not an end but a beginning. A beginning for young (and old) women (and men) everywhere to stand up and say “this is not how it has to be.”

*And yes, I know that page 3 is normally written with a capital, I am not (completely) grammatically clueless, I just didn’t feel like giving it the validity and status that a proper noun would convey*

[Also, read Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. I am only two chapters in but so far I think the book is brilliant. It makes me seethe with anger but also almost cry with relief that someone is questioning everything the way that I do/have done my whole life].