I was sat in a ‘Women in Literature’ seminar during my third year at Sussex University when I first considered the term ‘feminism’. Amber Jacobs, my wonderful tutor, explained it like this: “Feminism,” she said, “is believing that women should be equal to men.”
Hmmm, I thought. I suppose I must be a feminist then. I’d never ascribed meaning to this term (though I was certainly beyond thinking they were shaved-headed lesbians in duffle coats and dungarees) because I’d never given much consideration to the gaping inequalities between men and women. If you don’t feel affected by sexism, you don’t need to fight it, I thought. But that’s not quite true.
We spent the next ten weeks looking at mythology, fairytales and the role of women and girls in literature. We discussed the fact that not only are female authors under-represented and under-read but that female characters are often hysterical, or locked away – and are almost always the muse. That a sexual appetite is a repugnant quality (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) and that all women and girls are sex objects – like Nabokov’s Lolita or spoilt and fussy, as in Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
When you pick apart 20th century – and earlier – literature written by both men and women, you begin to see patterns. Women are not strong, powerful characters – they are weak, needy and feeble. Men are capable, powerful and secure. Women need rescuing – men are the rescuers.
Of course literature can mirror real life, so in the 1800s when the Brontës were writing about women wot lunch and men wot do much more interesting things, this might have been because this is what they were witnessing. But life can also mirror the arts – and the more we read (and watch films) about strong men and weak women, the more we believe it to be true.
I work in film, as a copywriter, scribing short pieces about new release films (mostly) and I feel saddened by how few female leads there are in the films I’m writing about. When a film’s directed by a woman, which is rare – Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University found that only 9% of Hollywood directors in 2008 were women, the same figure she had recorded in 1998 – I jump on it and make sure this is commented on.
But it needs to come from the source. We need to have more women and men creating art work with female characters who aren’t just pretty little sex objects. Because there are LOTS of women out there who aren’t just mums, wives and GFs. There are women in parliament, women running corporations and women successfully juggling motherhood with full time jobs.
So I think it’s important to instill the notion that girls can be active and strong in our children as early as possible. Traditional fairytales cast young women as passive and in need of rescuing (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella) and old women as hags, evil stepmothers and past it. The young men ride horses, save their beaus and generally play the macho man.
When my child is old enough for me to tell her/him stories, I’m going to switch the gender roles so that Cinder-Ellis is saved from his Ugly Step-brothers and Evil Stepfather by a gallant princess on horseback. Sleeping Beauty will be a man who’s poisoned by his evil fairy godfather and guess who will kiss him back to life? Yes, a strapping young woman. And so oral story-telling will be my contribution.
Growing up I had She-ra (see picture above) to look up to but there weren’t many other women who weren’t pretty, pink, glittery and scared of getting dirty. So I wanted to be pretty, pink, glittery and kept away from mud. Even though Barbies were banned by my mum, and she put me in gender-neutral dungarees and barely any pink, all I wanted was frilly, pink frocks and plastic high-heeled princess shoes because that’s what the girls at school wore. And they were getting their inspiration from the girls on TV.
As as adult I’m still inspired by fashion and lifestyle ideas I see in magazines, on TV, in films etc. So imagine how much books, films and other art forms must inform impressionable children about what girls look like and what they can achieve? They’re told to be pink and passive.
It’s time to challenge the status quo. So thanks, Amber, for all your inspiration. And here’s to a new generation of gender neutral children.