Feminist agenda

18Jan09

I wrote an article recently – a short herstory of feminism and speculative fiction – which hopefully is soon to be published in Seven Magazine. The article was inspired by a pair of blog entries, one at Unapologetically Female and another at Girls Read Comics, discussing the portrayal of women in fiction (fiction generally and comics, respectively). This triggered a lengthy discussion over at the Forward Motion writers’ community site about the need (or otherwise) to bear the feminist agenda in mind when writing one’s female characters. The general consensus there was that, broadly, all characters (not just female) should be fully developed, fulfil a role within the narrative but have a credibility and internal integrity that gives them a coherent and believable presence in the readers’ minds/imagination. If those criteria are fulfilled, then one need not concern oneself overly about gender stereotyping or token female characters within the story. And if the female characters (or, at least, the important ones), also happen to be attractive and there is a romance element, then that’s all to the good, because it’s playing to a natural interest – i.e. sex sells, because we are driven (as a species) to procreate, and there’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with that.

I was broadly supportive of that view, and still am, although I did wonder if there was an element of lazy thinking in those sorts of assertions, mostly because I did feel that there is an unhealthy level of obsession with superficiality – appearance over content, sexual availability, over exposure, objectification – of women in mainstream media representation. That prompted me to have a look at my area of interest – genre fiction, or more specifically speculative fiction – science fiction and fantasy – and compare the development of those genres against the development of feminist thinking and look for mismatches, gaps, stereotyping and misrepresentation.  The resulting article is by necessity a very brief overview of what could be a massive thesis topic, but it got me thinking.

I have never considered myself a feminist, and would have said that by-and-large the feminist movements of the beginning of the 20th century and the 1960’s/70’s had pretty much achieved everything they set out to achieve, and that there was little else for a feminist agenda to address. But when I started looking at the issues that are considered under the third wave of feminism, a kind of alarm bell went off in my head.

Issues of reproductive rights, sexual harassment or equal opportunities have never been a concern to me. I have always been in control of my reproductive functions, and have never felt oppressed by a lack of control or interference by others in what I can or cannot do. I’ve never been sexually harrassed, and don’t know of anyone who has, though I intellectually know it still exists and is still a problem, I don’t see it as something that any employer or organisation really tolerates these days, though I’m prepared to be proved wrong on that. And regarding equal opportunities – my own experience suggests to me that at least in the larger blue-chip companies, the balance has swung in favour of women when compared to men in terms of flexibility and work-life balance opportunities. When I worked in industry, I never felt that my gender affected the assessments made of my performance (mind you, it could just be that I never noticed – I do tend to miss out on those sorts of minor social details, but I can tell you I never felt hard done by) and even after having children held a position one step down from board level in terms of responsibility, authority and reporting lines on both full-time and part-time basis, at a time when a male counterpart’s request for a part-time position would have been career suicide. The option to go higher was always there, and it was my own choice not to pursue it and to take myself out of the formal employment situation altogether a couple of years ago, rather than being forced out in any way shape or form. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in terms of equal opportunity and gender stereotyping/expectations in education and employment terms, I have never felt limited or restricted. Maybe my perception is incorrect, and I have been exceptional or fortunate, but, as they say, perception is reality.

However, when I look at some of the other issues addressed by third wave feminism, I felt a massive surge of identification and a realisation that I am not alone in feeling that this is wrong. What I am talking about is the media’s  unhealthy standards for women – the glamourisation of eating disorders and the promotion of impossible and unhealthy body shapes, the portrayal of women as sexual objects wholly subservient to men’s desires (as evidenced in the rising tide of lads’ mags) and an increasing trend towards anti-intellectualism.

When I think about these topics, I look around me with fresh eyes, and I can see that the feminist agenda has some valid points to make, AND that these are in line with how I feel and think about a lot of different issues.

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the way women are portrayed in lads’ mags, and the layer of a thin veneer sex-positivity and a hint of a cynical reverse manipulation of male weakness has never entirely convinced me that this is not exploitative, and that these arguments are just a big scam to try to justify what is essentially a perpetuation of male dominance. Although there are a smattering of female-orientated titles selling similar images of the male physique, they have not even come close to achieving the prominence and circulation of Zoo/Nuts/Loaded and their ilk – these titles are inescapable, and I seriously worry about the effect they will have on my daughters, who are bombarded with these images in every corner-shop, bus-stop, train-station, newsagent, etc we frequent. I just don’t think that sexual availability is a good response to women’s liberation from restrictive societal norms, although again this is maybe just me trapped in my repressed/oppressed gender state.

Then again, when I think of the portrayals of women in mainstream media. Those who are celebrated are not those who have achieved great things in academic, literary, political or scientific fields. They are the ones who are the richest, thinnest, best dressed, married to the most famous, and they are by turn idolised (lauded to an impossible degree, set an impossible standard to maintain) and villified (when they slip from those impossible standards by demonstrating their humanity and fallibility).  They are women who can be manipulated into positions where they help to create and maintain the illusion of this ‘perfect woman’ who has everything and can do everything, but actually does nothing for herself and just projects an image of perfection that matches to a male ideal, and this impossible ideal in turn fuels an orgy of emulation amongst the women who consume these images and are brought to believe that this is what they should aspire to be. It makes me sick, and so strongly ties in with the third element – the anti-intellectualism – the drive towards vapid stupidity, the idea that to have any sort of talent or principle or disciplined thought or knowledge and understanding of the world is somehow undesirable.

The media make much of the ‘dumbing down’ of the education system, but I see nothing in the mainstream that counters this. For example, when I go to the co-op, I look at the media titles on offer. There is a wide selection of the vile lads mags (as mentioned above), then there is an equally large swathe of “women’s” titles.  These are equally vile. The “celebrity gossip” magazines that idolise the fake perfection of staged fulfilment, the “tv quick” magazines that are full of the lowest-common-denominator soap misery stories (seriously. why do people watch these misery vehicles? the acting is dismal, the plot-lines are predictable and unremittingly melodramatic or tedious, and they perpetuate misery as a common state) and the “style” magazines are purely geared at triggering consumption, fuelling negative body perceptions (why you need to lose weight fast) AND perpetuating the idea that a man is a necessary part of self-actualisation (want to improve your orgasm? how to marry a man when you’re forty. Both of these are actual headlines I saw). I honestly don’t see that these have changed all that much since . . . . ever . . . . and this is what a lot of women never go beyond. There are no political magazines, no fiction magazines, no science or other interest magazines (excluding football, motors and fishing) to stimulate interest or imagination. And then you get things like the Kaiser Chiefs’ new song Never Miss a Beat in which the idea “it’s cool to know nothing” is articulated.

And that seems symptomatic of the apathy pervading popular culture – anything that smacks of thought or discipline or intellectual activity is profoundly distrusted, because ignorance is bliss?

I don’t think so. 

Does that make me a feminist?

I’m not sure. I don’t subscribe to the strident “all men are rapists” feminism of the 60’s – some of my best friends are men 😉 – and have never thought I would identify with the agenda, always thought that we were in a post-feminist era when issues of gender were largely irrelevant.

 Now?

I would identify myself with some of the issues. I would say that I have serious issues with media representation of women – I always have, but always thought it was just me – but that other areas impinge less.  Certainly, in terms of my writing, I have a different perspective on my female characters and I will be more conscious of feminist issues in future writing. But in terms of activism? I’m not sure. Maybe I am a feminist, but it’s with a small ‘f’ – as in, something I believe is the right way to go, rather than a big ‘F’, as in something that defines my consciousness.

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