I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. A slow, simmering anger at the way women are treated as second class citizens in society has bubbled underneath the surface of my seemingly placid exterior for many years. Most of the time when I’m harassed, heckled or, worse, touched – this happens a lot on crowded public transport, so I have one thing to thank coronavirus for – I put up and shut up, as we women have been conditioned to since time immemorial. Just ignore it. Just keep walking. Don’t engage, don’t escalate. As we women know, those who think we ask for it by wearing too much make up and too short skirts, the level of harassment we face is not in any way correlative to our appearance – I have even been harassed and heckled while on a school trip with a gaggle of my students staring wide-eyed behind me. I can promise you that my regulation school trip raincoat is not in any way sexy. That was a great lesson for my students on why Miss is always banging on about feminism.
My anger reached boiling point last week in a meeting where as a department we were talking about teaching Of Mice and Men to a class, and how we would handle the racism in the novel without upsetting or making uncomfortable the black students in the room. The n word is said numerous times in the novel, and it’s a discussion so many teachers have around the world every year, I’m sure – do we say it? Is it ok to say it even after we’ve explained the context? Is it a word that should now never be said? As a word, it carries such a weight, and it’s one that needs to rightly be measured with such care when it’s encountered in the classroom. What made me angry in that meeting was the sudden realisation that we weren’t having the same conversation about the words used to describe Curly’s wife in the book. Why weren’t we worrying equally about how the girls would feel about hearing a girl, of a similar age to them, described as a bitch? As jailbait? As a tart? As a rattrap? As a tramp? As poison? Why aren’t these words treated with the same horror and aversion as the n word? Why don’t they carry the same weight of violence and trauma? Because they should, shouldn’t they? Calling a woman a dog means she is being called subhuman. Therefore less than, and not entitled to the same rights as, men. And to call a woman ‘bait’ or a ‘trap’ for men – suggests that they should carry the full responsibility of men’s reactions to them. This is where our victim blaming and shaming comes from. Our language forms our way of seeing the world. The n word is now very rightly recognised as being a horrifically derogatory and demeaning word. However, the fact that similarly derogatory and demeaning words in our vocabulary used to describe women are not seen as such, and have become accepted and normalised, says everything about women’s place in our society. Every time we use these words we are reaffirming the fact that women are seen as less than men, in every way. And yet no one bats an eyelid at them. In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.
I watched a powerful documentary last night, on Netflix, called Missrepresentation, all about how society’s way of viewing women is formed by the media we consume. It told me nothing I didn’t already know, but seeing it laid out in facts and figures was incredibly upsetting. So many people tell me that feminism isn’t necessary any more – that we have equality now – and yet this documentary shows in indisputable statistics that we’re actually going backwards, not forwards, in the fight for equal rights for women. Less than 10% of films made have women as the main character, but even in those films where women are the main character, the plot of almost all of those films involves the woman’s pursuit of a man to complete her life. What message does this send to the children in our classrooms, who now spend most of their free time watching Netflix? When they see women represented, they see them represented entirely within a context of their relationship to men. Success for a woman, in a film, is, over 90% of the time, seen as achieving a successful relationship with a man. The same cannot be said if you reverse the genders, of course. Men in films are out saving the world, achieving career success, defeating enemies and generally proving how strong and brave they are – of course, this carries just as much of a problematic weight as the passive depictions of women in media, because it makes boys and men think that they have to ape this almost toxic level of masculinity in order to be successful in life. But at least men are told that they have a contribution to make to the world – for women, the overriding message is, success for you is getting that ring on your finger and a baby in the oven. No matter what else you achieve in life, ultimately, without a man by your side, you’ve achieved nothing. Sounds like a plot of a nineteenth century novel, doesn’t it? And yet here we are two hundred years later, still peddling the same narratives.
Last week, one of my female sixth formers said that feminism has gone ‘too far’. I could have cried. The fight is so far from over, and yet the greatest victory patriarchy has achieved in the twenty first century is normalising misogyny to the point where many people have become convinced there was and is no need for a fight in the first place. What’s the solution? Well, we need better stories, and we need better language. And more of us need to recognise that we need these, and we need to fight for them to become reality. No more putting up and shutting up. Because if we keep doing that, nothing will ever change, and in two hundred years’ time, we’ll still be reading novels and watching films where women are bit parts in their own lives.