We Should All Be Feminists

Yesterday I read We Should All Be Feminists, a shorthttp://instagram.com/p/u8LNKXIRzJ/ and sweet essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie based on her wonderful Ted talk. Like everything she produces it was beautiful, accessible and succinct, and I’ll be gifting it to my 15 year old cousin this Christmas alongside some of my less enlightened male – and female -friends. It summarises perfectly why feminism is a cause that’s still both relevant and necessary and one that we must all rally around, whilst rubbishing many of the myths and “but what about…?”s that surround the word and the movement. Do read it yourselves, it’s very short, but I thought I’d quote my favourite page:

“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It woudl be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.”

“That disgusting Cleopatra”

For Christmas my aunt gave me Stacy Schiff’s internationally best-selling biography Cleopatra: A Life. Studying history at university has given me a knee-jerk aversion to reading anything past-related outside of term-time, but I gave it a go anyway – I so rarely get to read a book dedicated to exploring the life of a female historical figure. It’s marvellous. It’s on Hilary Mantel levels of making history fascinating (although hopefully a bit more accurate). It’s an amazing insight into the life of someone right up there amongst history’s-most-misunderstood-characters, as well as the times that she lived in and the people and cultures that surrounded her. Who knew that Macedonian Greeks sat on the Egyptian throne for centuries? Who knew how sumptuously lavish an Alexandrian feast could be, and that the guests would all be gifted the cutlery and the furniture afterwards? Fabulously written and incredibly detailed, Schiff opens up a whole new world of family feuds and erotic scandal, priceless jewels and an unimaginable city that has been lost to the past. The book is amazingly written, and the story amazingly told.

It’s a sympathetic account to be certain; Schiff’s Cleopatra is no “whore queen” sleeping her way to the top, but rather shapes her Roman lovers to her political needs whilst having a jolly good time simultaneously (as her litter of dynasty-uniting children might attest). Hers is not Chaucer’s “martyr to love” whose only tool was sexuality, or Shaw’s “silly little girl” play-acting at politics with the big boys. The Cleopatra of this biography isn’t even particularly beautiful, as the hooked nose and strong chin of her only surviving contemporary likenesses prove. Schiff’s Cleopatra is a phenomenally clever strategist, a polyglot and an educated intellectual, a woman who ruled over an enormous and ancient empire that ended with her death. Schiff is no impartial historian (who is?) and that’s exactly what makes this book so great – it’s a very personal biography, as all biographies should be. It’s deeply pro-Cleopatra and her sex – the succinct passing put-downs of the countless (male) writers who have besmeared her subject’s reputation and memory over the last two thousand years were some of my favourite passages. In an endearingly witty interview with The New York Times Schiff delightfully dismisses centuries worth of assertions that Cleopatra’s diplomatic skill-set ended at the door to the bedroom by scoffing that “it has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains”.

I’m all for the image-rehabilitation of history’s scapegoats, especially if they happen to be powerful and independent females existing a couple of millennia before that was in vogue. I can’t pretend to have any of the ancient history credentials to confirm or deny whether the portrait Schiff paints is an accurate one, but it’s certainly a cracking read – and I also can’t pretend that I was not crackingly convinced.

“It’s not fair”

A pretty conservative Facebook friend recently posted this article about the BBC’s decision to boost gender representation on its airwaves by getting rid of all-male comedy panel shows. It elicited some interesting comments from many different angles, some calling the move “patronising, populist drivel”, and others arguing that it was a solid demonstration of systematic attacks on discriminatory power structures – the lines were not entirely drawn according to gender, but I have to say that it was entirely predictable who fell into the anti camp. I followed the debate feeling quietly exasperated by those white males whose comments about positive discrimination being just as bad as the negative sort were a fairly obvious veil for outrage that they might one day miss out on a job because of their gender – but it wasn’t until this commenter chimed in (at 3am) that my blood began to boil at the wilful ignorance on display when it comes to issues of representation:

People who would support superficial representation (i.e. having more women on a panel show just because there are more women in the population) are the real discriminators. You’re saying you would deny a male his meritocratic right just because he was born a male rather than a female. Just think about that for a moment. It’s basely unfair and in every way antithetical to the principles of equality you’d presumably support. Seriously, “we can’t know we’ve achieved [equality] until we implement equality of outcome (i.e. quotas)” … what?! You can’t know you’ve achieved equality until you do something which flies so blatantly in the face of equality that any sane person would be able to tell you you’re defeating your own aims? Bullshit at its most profound.

Also, people are saying media where there is a lot of a certain type of humour skews your perception of humour?! Only if you lack the self-control and awareness to not find funny that which you judge not to be funny? Which, by the way, you can’t. It’s an oxymoron – “I find this funny now but really I should be offended by it”. How illogical can you get? If you’re in a position to judge it to be not funny, then you’re in a position not to be influenced by seeing a lot of it. The state should not be disadvantaging people who have, by all accounts, worked to get their positions on television shows just to appease your particular sense of humour. There’s no suggestion that these male comedians are by-and-large doing anything which contravenes any reasonable moral stance and so, if the viewing figures are high enough now, why should the BBC or any other broadcaster pander to any specific view of humour, which is all the quota-advocates here can claim to have. 

There is no “power structure” against you here. No conspiracy. No establishment conniving to put on less-funny but more-male shows. Why would they do that?! They’re after viewing figures and would therefore put anyone funny enough, male or female, on TV, because it’s in their interests. To say “this is not about statistics” about a policy wholly concerned with statistics is nothing but a lie. It may be many other things (for me, viz. wrong, counter-productive, illogical, populist etc.) but “about statistics” it undeniably, 100% is.

The obvious thing to do after reading something as blinkered as the above is to righteously command the poster to check their privilege – someone did, and was greeted by another white male commentator mocking the very concept of privilege (yuck). I’m not going to list everything that is wrong with this Facebook comment essay, as lots of people have already attacked the issue and really who has the time to dismantle the patriarchy in a blogpost? My feelings were succinctly summarised by a subsequent comment: “I don’t know who you are but I think you are deeply wrong.” 

I find it deeply embarrassing and deeply depressing that within my social circle and throughout my university people can and do hold these types of views as absolute truth. That a man can feel perfectly justified in expressing outrage that he might be skipped over for a position on the basis of his gender alone, when the entire history of Western civilisation is a catalogue of everyone who isn’t a straight white man facing exactly that. That someone can exist in our society, where the gender pay gap stands at 20%, where boardrooms are overrun with men, where sexism and racism are historically institutionalised, and still scream that we live in a meritocracy. That someone can be so blinded by their own privilege that they don’t even acknowledge that it exists. I have taken the liberty of condensing the above comment into what I think OP really means – because it’s my blog and I can make things as simplistic as I like:

I’m a white male and the suggestion that the popular media supports my privilege and should recognise the existence and cultural relevance of other groups OFFENDS ME

I’m personally not sure whether I agree with this BBC policy. I think it’s a shame that we need systematic measures to achieve diversity on the telly – but I do accept that it’s probably necessary, and ultimately defer to what one enormously articulate commentator had to say on the matter:

“It’s true that equality of opportunity (ie. hiring) is the true measure of equality, but sometimes we can’t know we’ve achieved it until we implement equality of outcome (i.e. quotas).”

I can respect those who think it’s a step too far and consider it patronising, even if I do not share their opinions. But what I cannot respect is people who are so against a policy like this, so against having to accept that they have been dealt a weighted hand in life and live with the advantages of that, that they refuse to believe the endemic inequality present in our society stretches to every aspect of life – including who is hired to sit on a comedy panel. Lets not pretend that sexism is over. Lets not pretend that discrimination isn’t insidious and omnipresent. And I’m certainly not going to pretend that as a white middle-class female I have been offered the hardest lot in life. But I will NOT listen to white heterosexual men preaching that we’re all on equal footing and it all comes down to talent, and that ability is the only factor at play. This isn’t a question of “are women funny” or “should quotas stretch as far as 8 Out Of 10 Cats“, it is a rather larger question and one that needs a decidedly more complex answer than “quotas are reverse-discrimination, end of debate”.

And to be perfectly honest, as soon as someone expresses an opinion like that all I hear is “but I’m a man and it’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair”. Yes, it isn’t fair, and you can fuck off.

You can read a far more articulate analysis of this particular issue (specifically relating to women in comedy) over here