Essay: Girls, Men and Feminists

There recently swelled around me a critical mass of thoughts, feelings, images, songs and words about what it is like to be a woman; presenting me with problems, as well as some new tools.  It was interesting to be made to think (more so than I already do) about this issue through a mixture of autobiography, film, song and essay, none of which I chose for myself, but all of which seemed to find me at the same time.

Gone Girl

I picked up the film version of Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same title (she also wrote the screenplay) in the local library, as it sounded vaguely familiar.  Although it didn’t seem like the kind of film I would usually watch, something compelled me to take it.  The film is itself really compelling, right from the start, but what really stayed with me were lines like these:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.

Whether the character Amy Dunne – whose words these are – is a feminist hero, or if the whole treatment of her as a character is misogynistic, is a polemic issue.  The quote above seems to support both viewpoints simultaneously, so I guess ultimately it depends whether you see the vase or the two faces in the image.  I didn’t know that there was quite a lot of debate around both the novel and the film until I started to write about it, but what I personally was left with after watching, was anger: anger which came from recognition.

Two faces or a Vase?
Two faces or a Vase?

The following day – perhaps in the same way that if you suddenly start having to use crutches, you start to notice people with crutches everywhere around you – I became hyper-aware of casual sexism, especially in my office.  My desk sits between two 20-something men who spend a good part of their working day “rating” every female in office.  For those women whom they do not consider sufficiently sexually attractive to sleep with of their own free will, they decide a price which they would accept in order to have sex with her.  The language of the office is English, and they have these conversations in Spanish, perhaps in order to disguise it a little, and (I assume for sociolinguistic reasons) for me this does usually take the edge off, that and headphones.

The alliance of myself with headphones and language comes down to the fact that, in all honestly – and despite my 35 years – I felt unequipped to deal with the situation (should I talk to my boss, should I take them up on their comments, both?), in part because of being in what should be a neutral environment, the work place, but not least because I also feel somewhat complicit.  I felt complicit – and was/am – because it makes my working life much easier to ignore them and to an extent to play along, like the Cool Girl of Flynn’s description.  I take responsibility for that, however I’m also aware of the decades, the millenia, that have come before this particular situation and that have led me – and countless other women – to feel unable to express themselves and to address just such situations.

Girl in a Band

Because of an ongoing Patti Smith obsession which my sister’s boyfriend and I share, after he read this autobiography by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, he encouraged me to read it also.  At the same time another good friend was reading it too.   Interestingly, I didn’t know this until she sent me an uncharacteristically angry response to an email regarding a situation about a boy.  She then followed up a little later with, “I’m sorry, I’m feeling really angry.  I just read the Kim Gordon autobiography”.  This was intriguing enough for me to decide to read this.

The first thing that I noticed was her voice which, unlike my stuttering one, is clear, cool and unafraid.  She says the things I’m too scared to say out-loud about men, but nonetheless certainly feel.  The tagline says “a memoir” and I guess in the same way that I feel I can have any opinion I like about any book I like here on this blog is because it is a diary, it is personal.  In the same way Gordon’s opinions about the men she has encountered in her life are her own experiences, her own opinions and if they resonate with the reader, then they resonate with the reader, and so in a sense that cannot be polemic, generalising, ostracising.  That isn’t to say that they can’t be countered, or discussed, but similarly can they be dismissed either.  This quote is a good example:

Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people.

She is right, I absolutely do know what she is talking about and although it can’t perhaps be empirically proved, I live this.  This is one reason why I feel unequipped to take on my male colleagues’ sexism, for example.

Whilst reading Girl in a Band, International Women’s Day fell.  Where I work, Corporate Social Responsibility had organised some talks, including one by an NGO that supports women who have been trafficked into prostitution in Spain.  It was an inspiring and depressing talk.  Two things that the speaker said really stayed with me: one, that in the capitalist world, market forces have taken rule where previously democracy and universal human rights held more sway.  He went on to say that anything can be bought or sold these day, people included.  The second thing came at the end of the talk, when a member of the audience asked what we could do, day-to-day, to help combat the issue of trafficking.  The speaker said the most important thing we could do was speak up.  Not just to raise awareness around the particular issue that the NGO worked in – that of trafficking women into prostitution – but around patriarchy in general, as a culture that does not value women, or at worse, values then as mercantile objects only, is the kind of culture that creates these situations in the first place.  Which once again reminded me, as I walked slowly back to my desk, of the attitudes of, and my lack of response to, my male colleagues.

Men Explain Things to Me

The same week that I watched Gone Girl, started reading Girl in a Band and attended that talk at work, my sister had just finished this book – and without knowing I was looking for ideas, input – gave it to me to read.

The book in its entirety is brilliant; very, very clever, beautifully and succinctly written, and ‘sugarshit sharp’ (to quote Kim Gordon quoting Julie Cafritz).  The title essay had so much synergy with what I had just read, watched and listened to, that on one hand it was shocking to think that it could all be a such a perfect coincidence, until one realises that there is no coincidence about it: these writers, film-makers and musicians are war correspondents, as Silnot writes in her essay ‘The Longest War’:

So many men murder their partners and their former partners that we [in the USA] have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year – meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties though no one declares a war on that particular kind of terror … If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs.  If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or males roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.

This issue finds me, and continues to find me because it is everywhere: it is our society’s white noise, something which is well demonstrated in the title essay of Solnit’s book.  The essay recounts the time she was lectured to on the subject of a very well received book about Eadweard Muybridge.  The deliverer of the lecture had to be told four times before it sunk in, that he was lecturing on this subject to the author of the same book he was lecturing her on.  This sense of entitlement is pandemic:

Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.  Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.


…this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces nearly every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence.

And negative:

Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.

(By this point I was spinning in my head the Sonic Youth song ‘100%’ (well, it is catchy), and this lyric (sung by Thurston Moore) which, for all it’s extremity, hit a certain spot: “I’ve been around the world a million times, and all you men are slime.”  However, luckily for me, the reader, the brilliant Solnit had a comforting reminder: “Increasingly men are becoming good allies – and there always have been some.  Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy.” Both politically, and personally: “Let me just say that my life is well sprinkled with lovely men … of whom it could be said – like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr Pelen’s class on Chaucer – “gladly would he learn and gladly teach”  This is true for my own life also)

We Should All Be Feminists

Toward the end of this journey, I took an actual physical journey to visit my parents.  In the afternoon after my arrival, I sat with my Mum in the sun with Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, as my Mum picked up and read this book.  She had finished it in about 15 minutes and spent a good part of that time laughing.  She was laughing with the author, who had had to (with her tongue in cheek) start out describing herself as a ‘Happy Feminist’ and ended up at a ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men’, in order to make her feminism, her belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, acceptable socially.

Just as Gordon wrote of her experiences as a girl in a band, Adichie writes of her experiences as a woman in the United States and in Nigeria, and it seems (who knew?) that gender is universal.  Gender issues affect us all, not matter where we are, what gender we inhabit, or how our lives are shaped.  Furthermore, it appears that there are certain conditions which favour the growth of inequality and injustice between the sexes, between human beings.  Number one: girls and women are taught, above all, to please, to be liked:

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them.  But the reverse is not the case.  We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable.

And to be silent:

We teach girls shame.  Close your legs.  Cover yourself.  We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something.  And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire.  Who silence themselves.  Who cannot say what they truly think.  Who have turned pretence into an art form.

The one, clearly it seems, going along with the other.

The conclusions I have drawn from this journey are the following: that feminism is not just for and about women, it is about justice, which ultimately – and limitlessly – benefits all humankind.  As Solnit so eloquently puts it:

Like racism, misogyny can never be adequately addressed by its victims alone.  The men who get it also understand that feminism is not a scheme to deprive men but a campaign to liberate us all.

And so this is all of our responsibility to fight for:

It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.

Finally, it is okay – and right – that we should be angry, but we should also remain hopeful, Adichie:

I am angry.  We should all be angry.  Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.  But I am also hopeful. because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.

The last word on this, for me, goes to Solnit:

It takes time.  There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in.  Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for.

This analogy echoes my own road, my own journey over the last few weeks and similarly I feel that I have made my own personal great leap forward, unbidden, unexpected but all the more necessary for it.



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