Casual Sexism: Myths, Debunked

Trigger warning for misogynist, homophobic language, discussion of sexual assault.

“Grow some balls!”/”That takes balls.” 

Having balls is a compliment or an insult, depending on how it’s used, but it comes back to the idea that being courageous/brave/forward is a male thing. I’m sure no one doubts that these traits are certainly present in women as well, however the problem here is linking such traits with cis-male genitalia. There’s also a bit of an irony to this saying. Testicles seem to be the most sensitive part on a male body. And yet, ironically, they’ve come to represent toughness.

So far, there’s no problem, really. Where’s the sexism?

The problem is when it’s used to describe a woman. And there are two issues with this. First, cis-women don’t have balls. So substitute balls for ovaries? It doesn’t quite have the same ring. We don’t even have a colloquial word for ovaries in english (in common usage, anyway, Urban Dictionary informs me that the kids are calling them “Os” these days), and yet I can think of numerous slang words for testicles off the top of my head. Balls, nuts, bollocks, crown jewels.

The second problem with this saying is when someone says to a woman “grow some balls”. Meaning get some nerve/drive/courage. It’s reductive because, in light of the fact that women don’t have them, it implies that courage/nerve/the go-getting attitude is A Male Thing. This insult’s close relative, calling someone a “pussy”, perfectly compliments this idea by saying that if you don’t have these things, you are female genitalia.

Finally, this is pretty trans* phobic language. The expression totally adheres to the gender binary, and in doing so, defines internal gender characteristics by reference to physical (external) gender. In this way, gender is represented as a dichotomy rather than a spectrum, and physical and mental manifestations of gender are wrongly conflated.

“You’re such a girl!”

Being a girl in this context is synonymous with being weak, submissive, and crying easily. Of course these traits are feminine, and therefore negative (according to this insult’s logic). The female gender is reduced to an insult. Like it’s the last thing anyone would want to be.

I’ve also noticed people employing this gender essentialist language to describe themselves or others in a positive way. Well in a retro-sexist positive way. Take this for example. “I just love crocheting and baking sponge cakes, I’m such a girl” or this, “my boyfriend eats soo much, he’s such a boy”. In other words “I do [insert gender-essential trait here], therefore I’m such a [insert gender here]“.

Like the “you’re such a girl” line, these expressions reek of gender essentialism. In the world of these expressions all girls wear pink dresses with little bows and like to knit or flower-arrange in their spare time. Likewise, the “boys” don’t show any sort of complex emotion, like “big” things like cars and trucks, and of course have enormous appetites.

“Take it as a compliment!”/”Have a sense of humour”/”Don’t be so serious.”

You know that person who says you look cute when you get angry, or that person who says they’re a feminist and then proceeds to completely objectify you (by being overtly sexual, asking you for naked photos – true story!)? This is one of their favourites.

People like to pull this one out when someone makes a sexist/homophobic joke and you don’t let it slide. If only you’d just stop being such a humourless feminist and appreciate some good old humour! Go on, take those sleazy construction worker catcalls as a compliment! You should like receiving that attention; it means you’re attractive, right?

Just no.

The idea of someone who “wears the pants” in a relationship.

This saying manages to be astoundingly heteronormative, with a generous helping of tired gender roles and gender essentialism.

Re: gender essentialism, first. It’s underscored by the idea that the person who wears the pants is a man (even though women wear pants. Indeed, I’m wearing pants right now). And that this pants-wearing man is the one who wields the power and authority in a relationship. It’s premised on the idea that it’s not fathomable that two people in a relationship, irrespective of their gender, could simply be equal, and that there may actually not be either particular person calling the shots. To think that someone has to be “the one in charge” is just really…weird and paternalistic.

Moving on to the heteronormativity of this. Just…wow. If the saying is based on the idea that one person in a relationship must either be or resemble a man, then what of a relationship where there are no men, more than one party is a man, neither party is a cis-gendered man?

It also assumes that everyone is in a monogamous relationship between two people.

The thing about this saying is that it’s usually aimed at relationships that don’t, or appear not to conform to narrow conceptions of how gender roles should be. Lesbian relationships are frequently targeted by absolutely hilar observers with these sorts of sayings. But even heterosexual relationships, where the female party might be noticeably forward or self-assured, can be targeted. Observers will wryly note, “well she really wears the pants in that relationship”.

“That sucks dick”/”Go suck a dick”.

This saying seems to be underpinned by the conception that fellatio is fundamentally degrading/debasing. Like “sucking a dick” is a really crappy thing to do and should only be reserved for crappy people. Which confuses me because receiving fellatio is like proof that someone’s A Real Man, or just generally awesome. So…it’s a shit thing to do, but if you get it you’re awesome?

Raping/being raped by things.

I’m going to keep writing about this until rape stops being funny to people. But first, let’s go back to a definition of rape, shall we? So (my non-dictionary) definition of rape is non-consensual sexual activity with someone. But it’s more than that. It’s an expression of power over someone, enacted by sexual means.

Rape isn’t just having sex with someone when they weren’t really into it. It goes far deeper than that. So, again, that really difficult exam? That long day at work? That nauseating hangover? That person hacking into your facebook and changing your status? Not rape. Next time you think about using ‘rape’ to describe any of those things, (or basically anything that isn’t non-consensual sexual activity with someone) think about all those sexual assault survivors whose experiences you’re dismissing.

Amen.

~ Rosie Cuppaidge

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Classy And Fabulous

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous” – Coco

Thanks, Coco, for that inspiring bit of wisdom. I want to have a chat about femininity and its place in my life and the struggles it has invited and the joys it has delivered.

The thought about femininity struck me as I was painting my nails a beautiful shade of turquoise and mulling over the concept of myths in relation to feminism. No doubt, these ideologies have stumped many a woman the world over, but indulge me for just a bit while I have a rant about how “femininity” (because scare quotes are actually really needed here, and I’ll explain why in just a sec) has impacted my life (how very out-of-the-ordinary of me, I know!).

So basically, “femininity” is a social construct, put in place yonks ago by someone random (I’m sure I could research this and find plenty of fun facts that probably relate back to religion, but whatever) and since then, it has bewildered, frustrated, and delighted the masses. The ideology goes something like this:

Girls/femininity = PINK!!!, sugar, dresses, make-up, softness, silence, grace, beauty, infantilisation, shallowness et cetera

Boys/masculinity = BLUE!!!, getting dirty, trucks and soldiers, boldness, loudness, action, effortlessness et cetera

Obviously these ideologies are way more complex, but I’ve just simplified that because it’s almost 11 PM on a Monday night and I couldn’t be arsed to write anything eloquently. Heaps more have just popped into my mind, but I’m sure you get the drift. The whole thing is bullshit. Now, let me get reflective here. I am the first-born girl in my family; I have two younger sisters. Being the typical “first girl”, I got dressed entirely in pink and ribbons and adornments, essentially rendering me a glorified marshmallow for the first five years of my life. This isn’t really anyone’s fault in particular. This is just how ideologies work in our society (see: Girls/femininity = PINK!!!). I’m sure I wore shorts from time to time, and obviously must have worn different colours, but the majority of photos show me dressed in something classy and fabulous and behaving very well indeed. A lot of that has to do with my mother raising me with civility and manners (something that every child should be raised with, just FYI), but I wonder if I would have been allowed to go outside and get dirty more often had I been born a male? If screaming fits and temper tantrums would have been received with obvious frustration, but also an underlying sense of pride at baby boy’s strong voice and rambunctiousness, instead of the scorn at wee little girl’s spoilt brat antics?

My sisters did not receive such stark femininity thrust upon them. My middle sister was paraded in purple, always mischievous and up to no good, which was a delight to many (and still is). The boxes were slowly being ticked off: my parents had the proper, bookworm, princess, as well as the witty, adorable, mischief-maker. And then along comes my youngest sister. Who was, for some unknown reason, dressed in blue and given relatively gender-neutral toys to play with. Was this because my parents understood that Girls/femininity = PINK!!! was utter bullshit? Or was it just because they had exhausted all of their preconceived notions of what being a girl was all about on the first two? Regardless, my youngest sister was always more action-packed, dirty, unruly, and just plain boy-ish as a child — the complete opposite of what I was like.

Some may argue that that is just our personalities. That’s just who we are. And I guess to some extent that is true, because we still are different to this day, and that’s beautiful because we’re unique, adult women who have forged our own identities separate from what was dumped on us as infants. But what if the way we were dressed and presented to the world as children deeply impacted our personalities and how we see ourselves? Maybe I am more insecure and shy than my youngest sister because I was brought up to be more quiet, more sensible, more bookish, more ‘feminine’, as opposed to loud, and dirty, and active, and confident.

I went through a huge identity crisis around the age of 12. For a few years, I refused to wear skirts or dresses. I refused to wear pink, and totally abhorred any colour close to it in the spectrum as well. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to defy my boundaries. I wanted to change.

In actual fact, I love pink. I love dresses. I love make-up. I love accessorising. I love making myself feel good with external additions and adornments. This is not vapid. Or shallow. Or vain. People (women) have been led to think this about “girly-girls” in order to discredit what it means to be “feminine” in today’s society. Ariel Levy says it best in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly stuff’ and rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever — these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.” 

Basically, for years I rejected what I genuinely liked in order to break free from an image that I was forced to grow up with. Somewhere along the line, I learnt that femininity = bad and I wanted out. It took me a long time to accept that being “feminine” and being not-so-“feminine” is okay. We are all just people (oooh profound!). If I want to wear something ridiculously frilly and curl my hair and wear tonnes of make-up because it makes me feel good, that is fucking spectacular. If I want to not wash my hair for a week, rock a pair of track pants and a clean (but slightly blemished) face because it makes me feel good, that is also fucking spectacular. And it isn’t my place to judge anyone on the way they look, or how they dress. Jafeel?

So, in summary, Coco, girls should be whatever the fuck they want to be because they are all beautiful, fantastic creatures who deserve love and the freedom to discover their own unique femininity or femaleness or masculinity or maleness or whatever. And for the record, I am classy and fabulous, just the way I am.

~ Sarah Groundwater

A Lighthearted Look At Sex Myths And Women

Myth #1: “Girls? No, girls don’t do that…”

“Yeah, I’ve been away for two weeks. She must be dying without sex.”

“Um, dude? She’d probably just have a go at herself.”

“Nah, chicks don’t do that.”

*footnote: adaptation of a conversation I overheard.

Excuse me, sir, but you’re a tad misinformed. Your misogynistic approach is really fucking wrong. Excuse me while I set the record straight, because mate, honestly? Women MASTURBATE.

Continue reading

Slut: A Myth

This article will be featured in Wom*news 9: Myths

Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault.

You are fifteen and dislike your crush’s girlfriend. You call her a slut. You are eighteen and about to go out clubbing for the first time. Your mother looks you up and down and says she didn’t raise a slut. You are twenty and the boy you are fucking calls you a slut the one night you refuse to have sex.

Everyone knows that the word “slut” has power, whether we agree with it or not.
It is used to shame and degrade women and, more importantly, to put them in a box with a label that says “you’re not human here” and to make sure they stay there. Whilst there are many different variables in the slut-shaming game, the objective remains the same: to ensure women’s behaviour is deemed “acceptable” by societal terms, and to make sex a source of shame and not power. In a culture that is so concerned with labels and definitions, one has to pose the question: what is a slut? After years of being called a slut, of hearing my friends being called sluts I can only assume that a slut is a woman who doesn’t adhere to every societal expectation heaped upon her. Continue reading

Reclaim the Night; my experiences, thoughts and opinions

Trigger Warning: contains references to sexual violence, marijuana and foul language.

Reclaim the Night, a march for the end of sexual violence against women, was held on October 26th (I know, it has taken me a while to write this). And, being both a member of the UQ Wom*n’s Collective, and a woman, I attended – banding together with other like-minded women against the horrific onslaught of sexual violence that is directed towards women worldwide.

Granted, I have been in marches before, so I understood that they are not always well received by the general public (particularly since this one blocked the roads of Brisbane’s CBD), but I was astounded by the arrogance and ignorance of some people in the City that night. For instance, we had a group of young girls (just a point here, 1 in 3 women will be a victim/survivor of sexual violence in her lifetime) mock march with us, taking photos and laughing like we were demonstrating for the legalisation of marijuana, not against sexual violence. Similarly, I was cat-called, yelled at to ‘Show us your tits’ and told that ‘sexual violence isn’t a big issue’, all by males lining the streets.

Now, I admit, we had immense support from males and females alike, but it is these few members of society, those who don’t care enough, who don’t think it is ‘an issue’, who can’t be bothered to learn about one of the biggest causes in Australia today, they ruin it for everyone, and they give all those not marching a pretty bad name.

So when I post this link on Facebook, and inevitably receive the comments of ‘Oh, so you’re saying all men are potential rapists’, and ‘We know, men are just the scum of the Earth’, and ‘Isn’t feminism just women dominating men’, please know that I am not directing these comments at you personally, I am directing them at those people (see, I didn’t say ‘men’ or ‘males’, I said ‘people’, because it can be anyone) who cat-call, who rape, who sexually violate without consent. Those people who harm, who don’t believe in equality (specifically gender equality in this instance), who call our Prime Minister a ‘whore’, who use violence to solve altercations, who mistreat women.

That, is who I am aiming my comments at.

~ Madeline Price (see more at my blog).

Feminism and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millenium Trilogy’

***Warning, as this piece contains discussion of emotional, mental, physical and sexual violence against women.

Stieg Larsson’s The Millenium Trilogy, and its punk, edgy, ruthless, cyber-hacker female protagonist – Lisabeth Salander, the ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ – have undoubtedly made their mark in the global literary scene. Swedish author Larsson died before his manuscripts for his trilogy could be published. They were subsequently given to the family he by all accounts hadn’t spoken with in years, and they then published the trilogy, reaping the monetary rewards while Stieg’s long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson received no credit in the wake of her lover’s death. Death has rendered this author’s inability to confirm his intent with the trilogy and its either feministic or misogynistic portrayal of women. Although Stieg’s friends have been outspoken about his active participation in feminism and his experiences that grounded the events chronicled in his novels, much of the interpretation of Lisbeth Salander and other female characters as they become victims of abuse and violence has been left up to Stieg’s audience – and in the wide world of feminism, this interpretation has been – in quite an encapsulating manner – conflicting.

The main argument amongst feminists seems to stem from two dominant conclusions: 1) Stieg Larsson presents a story where readers witness graphic sexual, emotional and mental abuse against women to the point where it can be seen as a type of rape-fantasy. (These conclusions have undoubtedly been reinforced by the Swedish The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo film’s graphic rape scene – but it must be stressed that I’m trying to present the feminist views that are entrenched solely in the novels) and 2) Stieg Larsson presents a revenge-feminist character who literally beats the crap out of the patriarchy and eventually rises above them all, both morally and legally, to become the most powerful character in the series.

I believe that both of these points are quite well founded and easy to believe; the story of the first book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (in Sweden it is published as ‘Men Who Hate Women’) centres around a man, Blomkvist, who is quite lucky with the ladies and ends up investigating the brutal rape and murders of women – and the explicit descriptions of these murders, as well as a scene where Lisbeth Salander is raped, certainly cement the idea of a ‘rape-fantasy’ narrative. The Rejectionist, a contributor to Tiger Beatdown, sums up the alleged misogynistic representation of Lisbeth perfectly. “[She’s] the super hot (“with the right make-up her face could have put her on any billboard in the world”) damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos (“in spite of the tattoos and the pierced nose and eyebrows she was…well…attractive. It was inexplicable”) who kicks ass. Boy is that a new one in the universe: the super hot damaged skinny white chick with a bunch of tattoos who kicks ass (1).” The Rejectionist’s further notion about Lisbeth repeatedly labelling herself as a victim also proves for a compelling argument. In Stenport’s academic reading of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which argues both positive and negative gender portrayals of the novel, she argues in terms of the resolution to the plot, “All bestial crimes actually committed against women in the novel are suppressed and never brought to public awareness or trial, whereas corporate crimes get exposed and corporate inefficiencies rectified (2).” Once again in literature, violence against women is swept under the rug. There are undeniably aspects of the trilogy that undermine a feministic approach.

The notion that Stieg Larsson presents a story world and set of characters that reflect current society is one that is the predominant view of fans of the trilogy. As writer Megan Kearns blogged, “Larsson also provides an interesting commentary on gender roles with his two protagonists.  Despite Blomkvist’s social nature and Salander’s private behavior, they both stubbornly follow their own moral code.  Both also possess overt sexualities. Yet society views Blomkvist as socially acceptable and perceives Salander as an outcast (3).”

I myself took a favourable, feministic approach as I first read the series. The second dominant interpretation, as aforementioned, is that The Millennium Trilogy is a piece of feminist literature with a feminist heroine. I would argue that this positive conclusion about Larsson’s writing seems to be more compelling in terms of contextual evidence – but no more compelling in terms of feminism interpretation. I had the chance to hear Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson speak about his writing at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival this year while she was promoting her memoirs – and honestly, Gabrielsson, Steig’s partner of over twenty years, makes a great case for Larsson’s feminist attitudes in Stieg and Me and his plot concerning depictions of violence against females. “Stieg saw no excuse for male violence and has Lisbeth say so in no uncertain terms. Martin Vanger was raped by his father, true, but he had ‘exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to strike back. He killed and raped because he liked doing it.’ Later Lisbeth adds: ‘I think that it’s pathetic that creeps always have to have someone else to blame (4).”

Feminist reviews of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo praise the whole set of female characters, not only Lisbeth and her portrayal. “Blomkivist is the traditional male action-hero in that he sleeps with no less than three very desirable women in this novel. However, unlike a lot of stereotypical male leads, all of these women pursue him and express their sexual desire without being described as desperate or unwanted. In fact, all of the women we meet in Larsson’s story are active characters. Even Harriet, who disappeared as a teenager and we do not know is alive until the end of the book, is a strong female (5),” writes Victoria over at Feministing.

There are many other integral facets of the succeeding novels in the trilogy that give weight to the conclusion that this trilogy is feminist literature. This is seen particularly in the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth wins against all of the men who had emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually abused and victimised her: (warning: spoilers) for example, she leaves the half-brother intent on killing her left for dead in a warehouse, and legally wins against her abuser Teleborian thanks to chilling evidence that she helped hack from his computer. In the resolution of the novel, Lisbeth is finally given legal status – she becomes a person in society rather than a ward of the state. She is liberated thanks to her own actions, morality and intelligence. A stylistic aspect of the third novel also entrenches the supposed feministic intent of the author, and therefore underlying morality, of the trilogy. Preceding the two sections of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a part on female warriors, lending a strong heroine allusion to the protagonist Lisbeth:

“It is estimated that some six hundred women served during the American Civil War. They had signed up disguised as men. Hollywood has missed a significant chapter of cultural history here – or is this history ideologically too difficult to deal with? Historians have often struggled to deal with women who do not respect gender constrictions, and nowhere is that distinction more sharply drawn than in the question of armed combat (6).”

The trilogy therefore can be seen to be filled with often blatant feminist references, ideas and characters purposely constructed and portrayed by Larsson for this intent.

This all leaves me pondering many questions. Would less emphasis on looks and less graphic detail of violence change interpretations? If Stieg Larsson was alive to tell of his intent, would you believe him? The intent and impact of The Millennium Trilogy will undoubtedly still be debated as time goes on by feminists. It seems to me that it’s about how a reader reads the novel: do they focus on the negative undertones, or take to heart the positive overtones? Ultimately, no matter what the author says, or how or what they write, it seems that as with all literature, the legacy will be determined by reception.

~ Emma Di

Sources:
(1) The Rejectionist. The Girl With Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/07/29/the-girl-with-the-lots-of-creepy-disturbing-torture-that-pissed-me-off-on-stieg-larsson/

(2) Stenport, Anna Westerståhl. Corporations, Crime, and Gender Construction in Stieg Larsson’s: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Exploring Twenty-first Century Neoliberalism in Swedish Culture. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/215674795/fulltextPDF?accountid=14723

(3) Kearnes, Megan. Rebel With A Cause: A Feminist Hero Emerges in film ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’.  http://opinionessoftheworld.com/2010/07/08/rebel-with-a-cause-a-feminist-hero-emerges-in-film-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo/

(4) Gabrielsson, Eva. Stieg and Me. Allen and Unwin, Sydney. 2011. Page 78.

(5) Victoria. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Yet Another Feminist Review. http://community.feministing.com/2010/08/09/the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-yet-another-feminist-review/

(6) Larsson, Stieg. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Maclehose Press, London. 2009. Page 3.