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Archive for October 21st, 2010

Get those robes off and make friends and family really, really proud.

Amongst the ten or so memories I have of early childhood is one where I went to a hurling match with my father. It was a wintry, lowering midlands day; the kind of bitter cold that makes the ref’s whistle slice the air. It isn’t clear in my memory whether my father played in this match or if he just knew someone who did. All I can recall is the drift of men into the dressing room afterward; the skid of studs on concrete, the white mud-spattered shins, the musky smell of sweat; and my dad telling me I couldn’t come in, that I was to wait at the door till he came out. Then, I didn’t know anything about gender differences, all I knew was that there was somewhere I couldn’t go and it was because I was a girl. I could hear my father talking inside the miserable mucky galvanised hut that passed for dressing facilities back then. There were laughs and a bit of language, it was the place to be and I couldn’t go there. I can only think that until then my sense of self was rooted in personhood, I wasn’t fully aware of being a girl or female and this experience was my first encounter with a boundary. I must have made a bit of a fuss about this at home afterwards because my father bought me a sliothar and a hurl and started to teach me how to pick up and puck the ball.

You could say, were I a boy and outside my mother’s dressing room, back then, I wouldn’t have been allowed in there either and that’s probably true even though the elaborate contortions of female dressing and undressing were unlikely to expose anything other than an elbow or a shoulder. But for the girlhood me it was just the first of many realisations about things a girl couldn’t do or wasn’t supposed to do. At Mass men and women (in mantillas, hats and headscarves) sat on opposite sides of the church, the boys and the girls playgrounds at school were separate, my father got more respect in shops and in other public places than my mother did. Society saw him as a paterfamilias and my mother and brother and I belonged to him. Neither my father or my mother held with any of this and barring that one entirely understandable dressing room ban, my father supported all my efforts to be as good as a boy without laughing. I traipsed after him to marts and matches and funerals – all gatherings dominated by men and boys and he never seemed to mind being the only man there with a little girl in tow (this was the 60s in rural Ireland and as I write I’m amazed anew at the changes, the past is indeed another country)

What trainee feminist hurlers looked like back then

In any case, there was a set of rules and even to the eyes of a little girl it was clear that the likes of mammies or aunties or grannies didn’t make them. The mammies, aunties and grannies were too busy; they milked cows, made hay, delivered calves at 2am and made sure the motley collection of men, children, dogs, cats and hens were fed. They also managed the farm money and had sidelines in selling eggs and rearing turkeys for the Christmas market. They held the reins of power lightly though; I wonder if they actually even realised that anything of any importance was only achieved by their hands, their minds.

Of course the mammies also passed on to their daughters the understanding of what it was to be female in the world. This involved much instruction on how to be ‘a little lady’ – they were great women for diminutives – by putting ‘little’ into sentences you could make something seem both passive and easily achieved. The lady imperative was laced through with religion too. You were not to sit in an unladylike manner with your knickers showing because your body was ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’. Cursing was ‘taking the holy name in vain’ as well as unladylike and could make you sound like ‘a British Tommy’ (a nice bit of nationalist post-war bias there). Boys could curse like the proverbial troopers, get filthy and hang by their knees from the top bars of swings without enduring similar exhortations; boys were forces of nature that couldn’t be stopped or changed. They didn’t have to worry about being temples or any of that guff. I wonder if in their secret hearts the mammies even believed the guff because the lady imperative was also socially driven, the mammies knew that one day they’d be sending their daughters off to convent secondary school and they didn’t want any daughter of theirs to come across like an uncouth, female barbarian.

By the time I got to the Brides of Christ change was a comin’. There were only rumours of the days when you had to dress and undress under your dressing gown, and in truth, the nuns didn’t talk all that much about being ladylike; their veils had shrunk and so did the length of girls’ P.E. skirts. Even though I didn’t comprehend it at the time, and generally didn’t ‘like’ the nuns, here was a community of women that didn’t live day-to-day under the rule of men (even though the Church was and is a monument to patriarchy) and this independence influenced how they educated the girls in their charge. The best of the nuns who educated me were fiercely interested in our success in the world and I even recall very many discussions about equality in Religion classes. A generation back, in the dank 50s so often recorded in Irish letters, the same order of nuns would have educated girls to be hostesses and wives, but TV had arrived, Liberation Theology had arrived, the comedy (as we thought) of bra-burning Women’s Lib had arrived, and inexorably all these influences seeped into the way us girls and the nuns thought. If there’s a girly version of being prepared to become captains of industry then that’s what we got (as well as some useless instruction on the Billings Method).

Vic Reeves thinks women are regressing

“Even now women don’t have the power that they had in the 80s”

The point I’m getting to is that I was lucky enough to be educated by both my parents and the nuns to understand myself to be a member of 50% of the human race (not a minority), that my brain was more important than my body and that I had the right to argue for fair play wherever I encountered sexism. I got to thinking about all this again recently during one week of reading the newspaper and watching television. Although a frequent question in my own internal conversation is what the hell ever happened to feminism, I’m never quite sure how this is perceived in the world at large. The spur to write this post came from an unlikely quarter: British comedian Vic Reeves. The Observer Woman magazine (yes, I like clothes and make-up) runs a regular piece across two pages entitled ‘What I know about women’ and ‘What I know about men’ where a well-known man and a well-known woman talk about their sentimental educations. In the course of such a piece Reeves said “I had my first long-term relationship with a girl called Lucy in the 80s. A feminist, she went on Reclaim the Night marches, and as far as our relationship was concerned there was never any doubt over who was in charge. Women who were in their 20s then had it really good – us men were right under the thumb, but we sort of liked that. In the 90s it all seemed to go backwards for women – control drifted away, and slowly it regressed to what it had been like in the 50s and 60s. Even now women don’t have the power that they had in the 80s – back then you wouldn’t dare say anything at all to a woman because you’d get a smack round the chops. Women were at their most powerful then”.

I wonder about the under the thumb thing, did that mean parity or dominance, only Reeves knows, but it makes me ask why, if women’s declining status is apparent to a man, is it not apparent to women? Because that seems to be the case; we women are regressing, retreating back into the kitchen (we still do the lion’s share of housework), thinking again about Prince Charming and watching ‘How to Look Good Naked’ on TV. That television programme in particular makes me squirm on my sofa. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the pitch; you get a woman whose self-esteem is in the cellar of her soul, she’s got a shit wardrobe, shit hair and oftentimes she’s coming out the other end of a shit marriage/relationship. What does such a woman need – more friends, a better job, a few good books, or to get out more? No, she needs to pose semi-naked for a coy photo shoot and then she needs to follow this up with prancing up and down on a runway in her underwear in an overlit shopping centre. The pièce de résistance of ‘How to Look Good Naked’ is at the end of the runway show when the lucky, lucky woman, in another extravagance of coyness, gets her full kit off while being blocked from view by a gaggle of models. The programme tells us over and over that this makes the woman feel like a million dollars, and it makes ‘friends and family’ proud of her. She has stopped being a sad old sack(socially unacceptable), has reclaimed her ‘bangers’ (breasts) and has morphed into a sex object again (socially acceptable).

Please tell me it’s not just me that finds this more than a harmless piece of silly television?  Who can’t be shocked at how beleaguered a woman has to be to volunteer for this cynical romp ? Is it  just me who thinks that sexuality is merely one aspect of the tremendously complicated creature that is the human being, that what lies beneath a person’s clothes is just one part of what makes them exciting? It’s like three waves of feminism never happened, women are back to being service bots, they exist to please, they have no mind.

“Did public feminism ever translate to the private world of the family?”

Back in 70s feminism women labeled each other in a really divisive way using language borrowed from politics – women who were known broadly within the wider culture as ‘dolly birds’ were called collaborators, they slept with the enemy (men), some feminists even posited that separatism/lesbian separatism was the only authentic life for a woman of feminist principles. I hated that language, its us and them-ness – and the coverage these peripheral views got was disproportionate to the numbers of women who actually believed in their worth. I’m convinced that this is partly why women started to dislike calling themselves feminists  – it meant you were an intransigent, humourless, man-hater.

I don’t believe however that the feminists landed us with the sorry state of regression we’re in now, nor for a minute do I believe that my life would be anything but poorer were I not reared in a time when angry women got out there and changed the Western world. For instance, I wouldn’t like to be a woman in Afghanistan or India or Africa, no thank you! I think that the ongoing battle for equality is being lost within the family and both men and women are responsible for this. Where the State can intervene with legislation, some kind of simulacrum of equality is enforceable – equal wages for equal work, what questions can be asked at a job interview, the right to take a case if you’re sexually harassed at work, the right not to be discriminated against if you’re a working mother. Behind closed doors, it’s a different story, and we know about the big headline issues here – domestic violence, marital rape – the laws exist but you have to be strong enough and free enough to access them.

What we think less about is how ordinary, undramatic life is lived, by ordinary, reasonably well-adjusted men and women and their children. Did public feminism ever translate to the private world of the family? If a girl is reared in an environment where her mother is the kind of downtrodden slave so beloved of ‘How To Look Good Naked’ what kind of information does that give her about how to be in the world? If such a girl has a father who comes and goes as a free agent, with no responsibilities at home barring putting out the bins and a contribution to the bills, who does she want to model herself on? The slave? I think it might make her want to put on a skimpy dress and drink like a lad – and she won’t have religion or thoughts of being a lady holding her back. I think such a girl might feel that the only thing society values about being female is looking good and being good in the sack cos the stuff her mother does, eh, who cares

“One thing has to happen; that doing it all lark has to stop”

It’s hardly news to anyone that us eejits who believed in having it all (the career and the family) won for ourselves the booby prize of doing it all. Believe me when I say that this experience is the equivalent of what the typical war film says happens to men. You know the story, you go in one side, a raw recruit, full of hope and optimism. Basic training is a bit tough but, you know, survivable. Then you progress to the Front, having babies, working, cooking, cleaning, project-managing the whole thing, and you begin to limp. Then one day, you come back from one tour of duty too many, and you’re a changed woman, brutalised, uncaring, an automaton. You go to the shops, look at the cereal shelves, and you couldn’t be arsed. You’re deranged enough to think that better clothes, a bit of slap and dusting off your cleavage might be the best way of dealing with the PTSD – you’re only a hair’s breadth away from finding yourself patronised by Gok Wan and galumphing around in front of a camera extolling the joys of your naked self.

One thing has to happen; that doing it all lark has to stop – if 90% of the world believes that housework and child-rearing (as apart from mothering) is menial, believe me, there are no brownie points going for it – not even in the eyes of sons and daughters – not even if you’re the living euphemism called a ‘woman in the home’ or a ‘homemaker’. And, the thing is, it’ll make your brain look bad naked; you’ll have wantonly spent all those woman-hours vacuuming and laundering and cooking and bottom-wiping, hours that you could have spent (had you a functioning life partner to share the load) reading or thinking or playing sports or joining clubs or finding a rewarding interest or a fulfilling job. Your brain will be flaccid and unattractive, it’ll mainly be a checklist of chores and how good your body might look bet into Spanx will be no consolation to you then. No, there’s no need to be a prude, to have all those hang-ups about nakedness and sexual desire, but if like Destry, you want to ride again, getting your clobber off in a shopping centre is not a way of proving your high status or your worth, it is instead the female version of the mid-life crisis; of buying that red sports car. It is just as sad and pathetic and hopeful and useless and the day it broadcasts to the nation is the day you’ll begin to regret it. By then you’ll be back to your internal monologue, Gok Wan will have stopped telling you how great you are (so you can undo a few zips and buttons, so what!), and you’ll be able to read in people’s eyes whether they watched the programme or not. Then it’ll dawn on you that the thing that’s wrong is your life, not your body image . The reason you’re miserable is because you’re downtrodden and not because your bra and knickers don’t match. The reason you look great on camera at the end is that you have an inch of make-up on and not because you’re glowing from making a meaningful life journey. I’m sorry to have to say it, I really am, but given a few days of mulling and contemplation, your brain could have saved you from this.

(I  saw the film The Hurt Locker in the midst of writing this post)

Yvonne Nolan is an independent radio and TV producer and journalist. This post originally appeared in her own excellent blog, How We Live Now

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