Tag Archives: sexism

Why Julia Gillard is my sister

3 Jul

I’m not the type of essentialist gender feminist who believes every woman is my sister simply because we share biological characteristics, unlike leading public figure Anne Summers, who in this article  expresses outrage against certain female MPs who did not resign “in solidarity” with Ms Gillard when she lost the ALP leadership to Kevin Rudd last week.

I don’t usually follow the line that a high achieving woman is making things better for all of those who share her sex. That to me is a romantic idea that has little basis in reality, indeed there are women among us considerably worse off after Ms Gillard’s prime ministership, for example the sole parents shifted to Newstart, and women seeking asylum.

Summers’ test of faith I find entirely self-defeating. What would it serve Australian society if every time a woman in public office was badly treated, her female colleagues resigned? In a nano second, there would be none of us left anywhere. It’s the sort of demand a comfortable middle class feminist can make from her armchair without pausing to consider the ramifications, for individuals and the greater good of our society.

That being said, these last few days I’ve noticed a sense of relief in myself and people around me. What is this about? The cessation of sexist abuse against Ms Gillard, that’s what it’s about.

It’s only since Ms Gillard left the leadership that it’s become painfully clear just how bad and how constant the gender-based abuse was. It’s like the relief you feel when you stop hitting yourself on the head with a hammer, if you are given to that form of self-abuse.  We no longer have to witness the daily public denigration of a woman, because she is a woman. We no longer have to witness the gender war in all its frightening darkness, as fought between Ms Gillard and the sexists from all walks of life, whose first complaint against the Prime Minister was that she is female, and who viewed every other dissatisfaction through that gender prism.

We have never seen such a terrifying display of anti woman feeling in our politics, because we have never had a female leader. We couldn’t see how bad it was until it stopped. We couldn’t see how the sexist abuse distracted from the most important  task of keeping our society functioning, which Ms Gillard’s government achieved better than almost any other Western government.

There is a great deal on which I vehemently disagreed with Ms Gillard. I did not personally take to her, though as Deputy PM I thought she would one day be an excellent leader. That day came too soon, and under fraught circumstances that could not have been worse for our first female PM. That the ALP chose to depose then leader Kevin Rudd in his first term was a questionable decision. That they should seize the opportunity to install the country’s first female leader, who as well as everything else was forced to become the blood-soaked symbol of the fallen man’s “knifing” beggars belief. One can only assume that as usual, the blokes brought a woman in to clean up their mess.

Though I am wary of joining anything, let alone a sisterhood (you will not find a woman less interested in or less capable of belonging than me) every time Ms Gillard was abused because of her sex, I was also abused. The unrelenting sexist and misogynist commentary directed towards her was directed at all women, though the perpetrators would no doubt strenuously deny that. It cannot be any other way, anymore than racism can only be aimed at one individual, leaving everyone else untouched.

We should be outraged at the contempt and insult daily enacted towards Ms Gillard. At any moment it can be and is turned against any woman who falls foul of those men and  women who are so conflicted in their attitudes towards us they can only fear and hate, solely because of our sex. One of Ms Gillard’s achievements, though it is not one any sane person could have anticipated or desired, is that she has shown us, through her personal endurance, the degree to which hatred of women still flourishes in Australian society and the awful toll it takes on that society.

In sexism and misogyny, Ms Gillard is my sister.

Men who hate women are everybody’s problem.

13 Jun

It’s no surprise that there dwell among us packs of males, whose feelings about women are so conflicted that while outwardly conducting apparently reasonable relationships with females close to them, they display the most base hostility to women they perceive as different, and in some way dangerous.

It also comes as no surprise that this hostility is expressed in sexual terms. Our breasts and our genitals serve as a focus for the fear and hatred felt towards us by some men, all of whom have mothers, some of whom have wives and female lovers, many of whom have daughters and sisters. Our body shapes and our faces are also the focus for this hatred, and our physical characteristics are almost always the first object of complaint when such a man feels himself provoked by something we have or have not done.

What ought to really terrify us, apart from the frequently repressed fear of going about our daily lives amongst these marauding packs, fear we must repress or we’ll never get out of our front doors, is that some of them will likely soon form the government of this country.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has served as a lightening rod for woman hatred , but anyone who thinks it’s only about her needs to think again. Any one of us who crosses any one of those men will be treated in exactly the same way, because that is what they do. They have no idea how to do anything else, and they don’t care to find out.

These men, and the women who support them, will have control over an array of legislation that directly affects women in terms of our reproductive health, and child care, for example. If the ALP defeat is as catastrophic as is forecast, there will be little in place to curb their enthusiasm for controlling our lives. We must not have men who hate us and the women who support them, wielding such power over us. Read this piece, by Lenore Taylor, on the possibilities.

This is Tony Abbott’s statement on abortion

If the last few days of ugliness have shown us anything, it’s that there are men who hate women and women who will make excuses for them, fast heading into a situation where they will have an alarming degree of control over our bodies and our lives.

I know there are men who are disgusted and repulsed by the attitudes and actions of some of their fellows. You have to speak up. This is not just a problem for women. Anything you can do and say. Whenever you can do and say it.

It is a bizarre and isolating feeling, to live in a body that can be so vilified simply because it is female. The slurs may be directed against Ms Gillard in these latest instances, but they threaten every woman. Everyone needs to take a stand against those men who need to belittle women, in order to feel good about themselves. It isn’t fun. It isn’t just a joke. It’s a sick and perverted masculinity.

Feminism. Feminists.

15 Mar

 feminist-doormat

The recent public stoush between Helen Razer and Jenna Price is of a kind that quite regularly erupts in feminist circles. Such eruptions are not peculiar to feminism: they occur in any ideological movement, but for some reason seem to be treated as more of a spectacle when women are involved. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer, George and Jerry reach a state of ironic hysterical excitability at the prospect of a “Cat fight! Cat fight!”

Briefly, Razer accuses Price’s Destroy the Joint movement of overly concerning itself with “everyday sexism” and likens this concern to a “cultural studies tute from 1991.” Price responds by pointing out that Destroy the Joint is involved in practically assisting women, as well as calling out media sexism. One immediate practical achievement that seems to me amazing, is that of persuading Telstra to agree to provide silent phone numbers at no cost to women who are in hiding from abusers.

Price also objects to Razer’s  instruction on what feminism is, or should be. The overall impression I gained from reading both women is that they are coming from different perspectives that can, to my mind, be complementary.

Thinking about difference and complementarity put me in mind of my doctoral thesis. I wrote what’s known as a composite thesis, that is, it’s comprised of a creative work, and an exegesis. A short extract from the introduction by way of explanation:

The Practice of Goodness is a work of creative non-fiction, a memoir of some of the significant events in the protagonist’s life, written in reaction to a diagnosis of terminal illness. In the theoretical perspective offered here I discuss the central themes of the memoir. These are those of violence, both domestic and political; the role of language in cultural constructions of death and dying; and the possibility of a secular ethics centred round responsibility, forgiveness and respect for our common vulnerability.

The overarching argument of the thesis is for the embodiment of theory in practice, an argument that is symbolised both by its composite form, and the decision to theoretically interrogate the themes of the creative piece. In the creative piece, these themes are explored experientially. The actual effects of violence, of cultural representations of death and dying through the use of figurative language, and of acts of forgiveness on human life, are noted in their practice. In the exegesis, I engage with various theoretical perspectives on these practices with the goal of demonstrating that extraordinary events may be more fully understood, and finally come to terms with, if the experiential is supported and informed by a theory that lends itself to practical application in life.

To suggest that either Razer or Price confines herself to such a sharply defined position, one theoretical, one practical, would be to insultingly reduce both women. It is never that clear. Reading Price’s account of her life’s activities, I’m left with the impression of a very hands-on feminist practice, of the kind from which I have benefited enormously at times in my life, when women have offered me assistance and support without which I think I might have died.

Reading Razer, I’m delighted and nourished by her wit, and her intellectual passion, a passion expressed by many feminist thinkers and writers over decades, without which I would also have died, in this instance an intellectual death. Razer’s hilarious account of Anne Summer’s ill-informed  “misogyny” call in the matter of the mouth-shaped urinals is a cautionary tale: it’s easy when seeking out sexism in media to think, based on a cursory inspection, that you’ve found it, so always check the context and the facts.

I share Razer’s passion for theory. I’m invigorated by the challenge of doing a close reading of really difficult stuff, and have been ridiculed many times for selecting something of Foucault’s as my bedtime book.  At one point my passion for Michel was so great that my students trawled the Internet trying to find me a Foucault doll.

But I don’t care what anyone thinks. I’ve learned much from Butler, Kristeva, Derrida, Levinas and so many more from whom I’ve borrowed a framework, or a lens, through which to consider my life and the culture in which I find myself. Not everybody shares this passion, and why should they?

I share Price’s passion for educating women to recognise sexism wherever it appears. I know there are many women who have not undertaken cultural studies, women’s studies, or gender studies, or who do not have the tools of high feminist theory with which to decode the world around us. There are women who do not have the time to equip themselves thus, and there are women who do not have the interest. The immediate success of a movement such as Destroy the Joint indicates to me that there are women hungry for an accessible feminism that has application to the lives they lead, and offers the possibility of naming and articulating the sexism and misogyny that surrounds us.  Are they middle class women? Quite likely, but so what? Middle class women are also subjected to domestic violence, rape and childhood abuse, though it is often extremely difficult for them to reveal this. The imperative to conceal such things is strong in the middle class. Who can say that beginning with “everyday sexism” won’t pave the way for the harder discussions?

I also share Price’s passion for the hands-on feminism to which I owe so much, the practical expression of the ideology Razer defines thus: “Feminism is the struggle against masculinised violence and feminised poverty.”

Although my definition inclines more towards that espoused by bell hooks:

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.

I have very little interest in the number of female CEOs in Australia. I find the outrage at so-called “sexualisation” dangerously silly. But I do think it’s important that women continue to learn to read the signals sent to us about us, by the society in which we live. I know it all so well by now that I don’t even have to think about it. However, I wasn’t born knowing. I didn’t know how to read the signs until feminists taught me. They didn’t teach me initially through high feminist theory. That came later for me. I needed something far more accessible to get me started.

Destroy the Joint can fulfill this educative role for women, and much more.

At the same time, I frequently feel a frustration of the kind that emerges in Razer’s critique. Why are we concerning ourselves with this banal twaddle when women are still subjected to appalling violence, and unforgivable poverty? Who cares if there’s a sexist ad somewhere while at the same time a woman is being brutalised or murdered, or thrown out onto the streets? What is feminism for, if not primarily to address these most grave matters?

I don’t know the answers. I do know that not every woman can undertake the hard yards in refuges and rape crisis centres, or is in any way less for not doing so. I couldn’t do it, because it’s far too close to my bones and I would be useless in those environments. I worked for years with women who wanted to address the aftermath of their abused and lost childhoods. I think I was useful, and I know I learned much from the encounters we shared. I’ve taught feminist theory, I think usefully, but I do know that not every woman can or wants to undertake those hard intellectual yards, and I can see no reason to expect that every woman should, or is in any way less for not doing so.

I’m pleased when young women I know remark on the everyday sexism they’ve learned to identify. I consider it part of my feminist task to remember the days when I too knew nothing, was avid to learn, and sought and found women who would teach me, taking me patiently through what they already knew so well.

It doesn’t surprise me when there are eruptions among feminists. As Razer points out, we are no nicer than any other human group and there’s no reason why we should be. It annoys me that all too often a dispute among women is taken as evidence that we are back biting bitches who can’t agree on anything, and that’s good enough reason to patronize and dismiss us. Last time I checked, it wasn’t women who were starting the majority of the world’s wars, for purposes far more deadly and self-interested than ideological spats.

I want women of Price and Razer’s calibre to continue to give voice to their interests and concerns. I don’t want a world in which either of them is silenced or disparaged.  Neither do I want a world in which feminist theory and practice are falsely framed as adversarial, and pitted against one another in a struggle for dominance and acclaim. When that happens, the patriarchy wins.

foucault-1

 

Now is not the time to have a pity party for the PM

2 Mar

Considering the kind of lives many women are living on planet Earth at this time, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s is up there in the very top level of privilege.

So it comes as something of a shock to read leading feminist Anne Summer’s piece today, in which she frames Ms Gillard as a victim. Victim of bastardry and misogyny, cruelly mocked, scoffed at, subjected to vile commentary including pornographic representation; criticised whichever way she turns, frequently on the basis of her sex, and shown “not the slightest drop of mercy or respect.”

Not only is Ms Gillard deprived of respect, Summers writes, but as a consequence of  personal disdain for her, the office of Prime Minister is also inevitably disrespected.

It’s a bit rich to expect the public to respect the office of Prime Minister given the complete contempt the ALP itself showed towards this office when it was inhabited by Kevin Rudd. This disrespect was compounded when the ALP gave us no warning of their intention to topple the man who had so triumphantly defeated John Howard, and instead acted as if they were governing a nation of mushrooms.

Be that as it may…

While there is much truth in Summer’s assessment of the situation, one has to wonder if it is wise to paint the Prime Minister in such catastrophically underdog terms at this time. There will be plenty of opportunity to dissect the sexism Ms Gillard has endured after the election. If she leads her party to victory she can be portrayed as a glorious survivor of vile misogyny. If she leads them to failure, books can be written about the cruel and unfair treatment of our first female Prime Minister. But right now, nobody wants a victim in charge of a government that is already hurtling down the road to ignominy.

No matter what your opinion of Ms Gillard, I don’t think you could deny that she is a woman of extraordinary strength and tenacity, and a damn good fighter.  Indeed some, perhaps all of her best speeches have been made when she’s been on the back foot, and defending herself against personal attacks. Think the globally acclaimed misogyny speech, for example, as well as the press conference she gave to settle the matter of her alleged involvement in dodgy dealings whilst working at Slater and Gordon. These are not the actions of a woman with a victim mentality. They are the actions of a survivor.

What Ms Gillard endures is sadly no different from what many women endure on a daily basis. That any of us have to put up with misogyny is an outrage, and there are many among us who live with a great deal more of it than Ms Gillard, without any of the compensations she enjoys. In view of this, while it is appropriate to point out misogyny when it so publicly manifests against  a high-profile woman, it isn’t appropriate to cast that woman as a helpless victim. In the hierarchy of female suffering at the hands of the patriarchy, Ms Gillard is luckily on a low level.

I find it difficult to imagine that the Prime Minister herself would appreciate the gender card being played in this way at this time. I see no indication that she considers herself in any way an underdog, and her reaction to sexism and misogyny has been anything but that of a woman looking for mercy.

“Is mockery the new misogyny?” Summers asks.

Mockery may well be yet another form of expressing misogyny in this situation. But the sad fact is that we can’t afford to focus on that right now. Gillard is facing the fight of her political life. Far more importantly, the ALP is facing the same. Do we really want to offer the nation the picture of a victimised, bullied, vilely mocked woman as our next PM? Or should we be wise enough to keep our peace on the misogyny angle, and leave the pity party for another time?

Flexing my mussel

15 Oct

WARNING: this post contains images of shellfish and flowers that some readers may find confronting

I’m not at all disturbed by the disgraced Peter Slipper likening my lady bits to a shellfish, in one of many private text messages sent to his then new friend James Ashby.

For a start, as I have often said, one overlooks the insult (if indeed we confer on this text message the status of insult) on considering the source, and chooses not to waste one’s time and energy getting exercised about it.

Secondly, the comment is hardly original. Women’s genitals have been likened to fish of one kind or another many times before. Does anyone recall that scene in Bliss, the Peter Carey novel turned film, in which sardines cascade from Bettina Joy’s vagina? Yes. Well. Is it a boy thing?

For myself, I’m more inclined towards the Georgia O’Keeffe visual analogies such as this one:

But hey, whatever floats your fishing boat.

On the other hand, I find Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s comments on women profoundly disturbing. For example:

It would be folly to expect that women would ever approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, their abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons. 

Or:

The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience… Even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year… When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boat people, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion, which is.

Why anyone would spend five minutes of their time worrying about how immature men describe female genitalia when we have an aspiring Prime Minister who thinks like this about women, is a mystery to me.

Then there is the semantic quarrel about the difference between sexism and misogyny. You don’t have to hate women to be sexist, apparently, but you do have to hate us to be a misogynist. Why do I not feel consoled by this distinction?

And let’s not forget hatred can take many forms. It does not have to be overt. It adapts itself readily to many guises. If I am treated as inferior because of my sex, as Mr Abbott suggests, am I to feel better about this if it is described to me as sexism rather than misogyny? Surely sexism is an expression of misogyny?

Tony Abbott has three daughters. He feels their virginity is their most  precious gift. He reduces his daughters to a hymen, a reduction I would argue denies them their full  humanity, as so many of Abbott’s statements about women deny us our full humanity.

What we need to ask is do we want a Prime Minister whose default position is to deny women our full humanity?

And why would he want to do this if he doesn’t hate us, however well that hatred may be disguised?

The REAL Gillard hypocrisy

11 Oct

In the brouhaha about sexism and misogyny, the passing of legislation to reduce single parent payments to the Newstart allowance when a child reaches the age of eight has gone comparatively unremarked.

The government will save some 700 million dollars through slashing up to one hundred dollars a fortnight off payments to about 150,00 single parents,the majority of whom are women.

With no evidence to support the theory, the government believes that forcing single parents into poverty and charity handouts will increase their ability to find work.

At the very least, one would expect that before taking this drastic action the government might have commissioned a study, an inquiry, a report, a something into what actually happens to people when you take away what little they already have. Off the top of my head I’d guess it makes them desperate. I’d guess it makes them depressed. Neither are states of mind conducive to taking charge of one’s life and neither are states of mind conducive to the best parenting.

Common sense would suggest that the way to get single parents off benefits and into the workforce is not to first reduce them and their children to crippling poverty.  The “we will make you and your children homeless and hungry and then you’ll get a job, won’t you” approach is punitive, classist and I believe sexist.

I have no idea what the ALP stands for anymore. I have no idea what kind of a feminist Julia Gillard is when she delivers passionate speeches about misogyny and sexism while at the same time making life so much more difficult for some of the most vulnerable women in society.

If ever we were to plead “Somebody think of the children!” then now would be the time. Because it will be the children of single parents who will suffer most as a consequence of the Gillard government’s cuts.

So Ms Gillard can make as many fancy speeches as she likes about misogyny and sexism, while she’s willing to condemn women and children to living on a Newstart allowance that almost nobody considers even remotely adequate, just to achieve a budget surplus, her words are little more than a noisy bell and a clanging cymbal, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

The footballer & the anti porn campaigner: not cool as FCUK

6 May

On Melinda Tankard Reist’s website today you’ll find this article about AFL footballer Lance “Buddy” Franklin. Franklin has another job as well as football: he is co-director of clothing company Nena & Pasadena. This company apparently specialises in tee-shirts featuring women in exaggerated sexual poses, sometimes handcuffed, and partially clothed. There’s often a slogan or two, in case we haven’t managed to interpret the images.

Reist asks: “What message does this clothing send N&P’s target market of young men about women?”

What message does this send about women?

Reist’s answer is that the message conveyed by Buddy’s shirts is that women are sexual objects, not human beings. She feels the images degrade us.  I don’t read it that way. To me, the shirts say nothing much at all about women, and everything about the fantasy lives of those who design, produce and wear them. These shirts say nothing about who women are, and everything about what the men who wear them want us to be.

I don’t believe another person’s fantasies degrade me. They don’t reflect on me in any way at all. This is what we need to teach our young. You aren’t what somebody else imagines you are. As we’re never going to control anyone’s imagination and ought not to try,  we need to focus on educating children to refuse the imposition of other people’s fantasies on their sense of who they are. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s being proactive. It requires us to dump the language of victimisation and replace it with the language of empowerment. We are in dire need of this paradigm change.

At this point I’ll refer you to this horribly sexist vintage ads site. While there’s definitely less flesh and far less overt sexual imagery, the message is the same. These ads are also a reflection of the desires and fantasies of some men, and say nothing much at all about women. They do say a great deal about a dynamic that remains consistent. These ads, like Buddy’s shirts, cast women in an inferior and tiresome role. We may have our clothes on in the vintage ads, but they are only a variation of Buddy’s fantasies.

When we protest that these images degrade and objectify us, we give them the power to do exactly that. There are always two sensibilities involved in the interpretation of any text: that of its author and that of its reader. As a reader I’m free to conclude that the text is not about me. It’s all about the author. I’m free to refuse the author’s construction of my sexuality, a construct based on the author’s desires. Why should I grant anyone that power over me?

Personally, I’ve never been attracted to clothing featuring pictures and advertising: I’m not a billboard. Even if such clothing isn’t pushing a brand, it is self-revealing: by my clothes you’ll know me. There are occasions like demonstrations, conferences when it feels good to state my position through what I’m wearing, and cartoonist First Dog on the Moon’s shirts I’ll wear anytime.

That said I do have a couple of FCUK tee-shirts, one that says “Cool as FCUK” and another proclaiming “Lucky FCUK,” neither of which I would be caught dead in outside the house, but that’s just me.

Reist then asks: “What does it say about men and women when clothed men wear t-shirts of naked women?”

A man who feels the need to wear an image of a naked woman on his tee-shirt is making a statement or a series of statements about himself, about his opinions of women, about his attitude to women. Such clothing says nothing about “men and women.” It says some things about some men. Again, women are not obliged to join such men in their fantasies and desires. We are not demeaned and objectified unless we accept the wearer’s world view. Unless we allow that world view to construct us and so become complicit in our own victimisation and dehumanisation.

That being said, I have no problem with letting Buddy know his tee-shirts say everything about him, and nothing about women, and what he’s saying about himself is pretty crap. I’ve no problem passing that message onto the shops that stock his wares, either. That’s the easy part. The hard part is changing the paradigm from first accepting then protesting victimisation, to refusal of men like Buddy’s interpretations of women and our sexuality in the first place. We do this by giving our children the tools they need to resist believing they are what somebody else says they are, and that they have to be what somebody else wants them to be. We’re never going to stop the Buddies but we can disempower them. We refuse the victimisation in the first place, then we don’t have to waste our energies protesting it.

Buddy, your tee-shirts reveal some weird things about you. You might want to think about that, mate.

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