Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Some snapshot images I want to remember.

Five white women on sofas reading bell hooks, sipping Fair Trade tea, and trying to get to grips with the message.

A group hear directly from sanctuary-seekers, including a woman from Zimbabwe who has started an African Women’s Empowerment Forum. The microphone is far from the table so I offer to click her powerpoint slides.

Nothing actually comes in totally opposing pairs: left and right have forward and back, peace and war have careful friendship and non-physical conflict, male and female have intersexed. The ability of some to move from one end of a spectrum to another does not automatically make the spectrum into a binary.

My shoes, my watch, my deodorant: things which belong to feminine me, and yet were sold as “men’s”.

Rejecting treatment is hard to do, when you’ve been told all your life that hospitals cure things. Sometimes, though, the treatment is worse than the disease, and it’s better to stop stressing and to take the medical professionals out of what should be your private life. Having turned down two courses of possible but not certain long-term treatment for a condition which only bothers me occasionally and has an acceptable cure-for-symptom which doesn’t involve anything invasive or causing myself pain every day, I feel like some of my agency has been restored.

A conversation with a friend about being annoyed with one’s body when it goes wrong reminds me that I let go of that a long time ago, when I have PVFS if not before. I don’t have energy for it.

Standing in the university corridor – polished wood-block floor, cream painted walls covered in boards covered in pinned-up papers, the slight hum of desktops behind closed office doors – and reading one of those papers. At the very top of the list (my name is early in the alphabet) the pass-list announces that I have a First Class degree.


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In this post, I want to try and explain clearly and analyse a common argument which is rarely discussed specifically, though it is very frequently used in anti-oppression discourse.  It is the argument which takes us from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ (an empirical fact which can be checked by observation) to ‘this is an issue about which feminists should take action’. A similiar argument can be used to take us from ‘there are few or no people of colour in science fiction and fantasy novels’ to ‘this should change’.

For the time being, I want to set aside the issues raised by the initial empirical observations (accepting, for the time being, that there are in fact some empirical observations which are worrying), and the issues raised by the conclusions (in particular, the issue of what action should be taken if these arguments are right is an issue too big for this post). Instead, I want to focus on the step or steps which take us from the empirical observation to the conclusion. This is intended to reply to a possible counter-argument which moves from the same empirical observation to an alternative conclusion, i.e. from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ to ‘and that’s fine’. Such an argument might run as follows, expressed briefly:

Premise 1: Women in advertising (as it is produced in Western English speaking countries) are only shown in certain stereotypical roles (the precise roles chosen for them vary along race, class, and other lines).
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: Women seeing adverts know that they are not realistic. Therefore,
Conclusion: Women are not harmed by their stereotypical portrayal in advertising.

I hope that this argument, which I shall call the no-harm argument, seems strong. It is not intended to be a strawman, though I do intend to disagree with it. On the contrary, it has a certain appeal: it accepts the empirical facts about advertising and actual women, and it grants that women are strong enough of mind to resist messages from advertising, which is also consistent with the experiences of at least some women.

However, I think that it does not reflect two aspects of advertising as it is currently practised in Western English speaking nations. Firstly, the no-harm argument ignores the way in which advertising is constant and repetative. I wrote in a piece of private journalling recently about the pain I feel when people, who have accepted that television advertising and programming carries harmful messages, suggest that merely not watching television will prevent the harm. In the UK today, it is impossible to walk down the road or use public transport without being exposed to advertising. Furthermore, a single advert does not truly stand alone. The stereotypes found in one (the woman who cannot think about anything except food) are found in another (the women who only cares about her appearance) and another (the girl-child who only wants to play with a toy cooker) and another (the woman who is desperate to get married) and another… One specific advert is not the problem. The pattern is the problem, because it creates an artificial normality – the world of what we expect to see in adverts – which is, for one thing, not diverse enough to reflect reality.

Secondly, adverts are not only seen by self-aware confident message-rejecting feminist women (we just happen to be ones who talk about them most!).  They are also seen by children of all genders, men, unconfident women, and women who know that however hard they try, they will never live up to the beauty standard held by the world-of-advertising. (I think that’s almost all women, but some are born closer to the white-slender-symmetrical-straight-etc. standard than others.)

A new set of premises, then, might look like this:

Premise 1: Women in advertising are shown exclusively and repetatively in a small selection of stereotypical roles.
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: The repetation of advertising images creates an artificial ‘normality’ which is not representative of the real world.
Premise 4: All people who are exposed to advertising may be inclined to believe that some or all aspects of the artificial normality of premise 3 are better than the actual world and should be emulated as far as possible.

From these premises, it seems much easier to draw the conclusion that all people exposed to advertising are at risk of having their opinions affected by it. Premise 3 seems to me to follow fairly obviously from 1 and 2 (repetation creates expectation – if you doubt this, trying singing ‘Poor Old Micheal Finnegan’ with some children of your choice – and expectation implies normality: we expect things to be normal, therefore what we are trained to expect is what is being normalised), but perhaps 4 requires some more support. Can’t everyone be like the strong women of the no-harm argument and simply reject the normalising messages of advertising?

No. And I have empirical evidence for this. Think about it from the point of view of the advertising company for a moment. The aim of the company is to persuade you to act in a certain way (usually, to buy a product, but adverts asking for money for charity, for you to do your taxes online, or to Change 4 Life, all function in the same way). In order to get you to act in this way, they have to create a belief that it is worth the resources (time, money, effort) required to do so. This takes the form of a proposition ‘undertake action X and your life will be better in way Y’. For example: ‘shop at this supermarket and you will have more money for other items’, ‘buy this make of car and driving will become easier and more fun’, or ‘buy our perfume and people of your desired gender will want to have sex with you’. I hope those examples make it clear that I am not concerned here with the truth values of the claims made by adverts, only with the idea that in order to persuade people to act in certain ways adverts must make claims that the requested action produces a result which is desireable to the target audience.

Why, then, are we liable to believe these messages? Partly it is repetation, and that we are surrounded by other people who also believe some or all of these messages (not just people we know: if you differ significantly from the standard, for example if you’re very overweight, strangers feel free to comment). Partly it is that human quirk, wishful thinking: it would be nice if  we could solve our problems by buying a certain product, and so we entertain the idea that we could. And partly it is that the advertisers are good at their job, at making the untrue seem plausible. It’s quite likely that one supermarket is cheaper than another, so why shouldn’t it be true that one kind of make-up will make you more beautiful than another? The catch there is that beauty is more complex than price: as I see it, either beauty is not what the adverts say that it is, or it is what the adverts say, but it’s not worth having.

If we accept those premises, then, it seems reasonable to reach the conclusion that advertising as it exists in Western English speaking societies today is harmful to at least some people at least some of the time. If this is true, there is a need for action: what action should be taken is a debate for another day.

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I spend a fair amount of my spare time volunteering with GirlguidingUK, specifically as a Brownie Assistant Guider. In fact, I spent my Easter weekend at Pack Holiday with seven other leaders and eighteen girls.

I’ve been a member of Girlguiding since I joined the Brownies at age seven. I enjoyed Brownies, as far as I remember, and mostly enjoyed Guides, although my problems with other teenagers did not disappear when we were at Guides. It did give me real experience of leadership, though, and the sensation of being capable at all sorts of practical things. If I learnt it at Guides, I know I can do it: tie a reef knot, light a fire, pitch a tent, wire a plug, lead a prayer, work in a team, identify edible woodland plants… not all of it directly useful in my ordinary daily life, perhaps, but no more useless than the things I learnt at school that I couldn’t do: use an electric saw, make things in metal, appreciate mathematics, play netball. To this day, my involvement in Girlguiding gives me chances to feel useful, to feel needed, to feel and be seen as strong and capable and worthwhile. It gives me a validation as a person which I don’t get anywhere else; even my academic work (which is often well-regarded and gets high marks) doesn’t make me a useful member of society.

I hope that the girls and young women I work with now find the experiences they have through Girlguiding as empowering as I did. I do think that there is a value in spending some time in women-only groups, and Girlguiding is such a space which doesn’t have the explicit political agenda of a feminist discussion meeting or reading group, though I personally value those things as well; I fear that that political agenda keeps as many women away as it brings in, especially when they are at a young age. I also think that there’s a value in spending time in mixed groups: my balance was that I was in a comprehensive school and a single-gender youth group, but there are many other ways of creating that balance. (A feminist friend once argued seriously that taking children into single-gender groups would reinforce their gender roles. I would argue that it need not necessarily be so, because my experience is that single-gender groups allowed me to break out of my assigned cis-gender woman’s role, and mixed-gender groups were those in which I was, for example, forced to do the washing up while boys watched me and played with knives. That said, I’m sure there are cases – the Scout camp I once visited where the young boys spent all their time playing and the cooking and washing up, things we would have made girls of that age help with, were done by middle-aged women – where the single-gender space reinforces gender roles.)

Overall, then, I think that Girlguiding and its sister organisations have much to offer my society which is good and in line with my feminist ideals. However, I also think that some aspects of our actual practice could do with reform, and that there are elements of our history which are distinctly problematic. For starters, Scouting, Baden-Powell’s original movement from which Girlguiding as exists today in the UK has evolved, was both located in a colonialist mindset, and culturally appropriative in offensive ways. Scouting for Boys, the original (1908) handbook of the movement, is classist and racist as well as jingoistic (the edition I’ve linked to has an excellent introduction which covers those points in more depth than I am able to here). However, we don’t teach from that book today, and I am much more interested in today’s movement: not least because I cannot change the past, but I can potentially alter our actions in the present.

The symptoms of B-P’s ideas and appropriations are visible today. I take song lyrics and other material passed down by word of mouth or tradition to be especially illustrative, and it is especially difficult to change and question. The Brownie Story, the ‘foundational myth’ of the section for members of GirlguidingUK aged between 7 and 10, was updated recently, adding some extra characters (including a girl with a non-English name), and making it clear that we don’t actually expect children today to go off into the woods at night. The colonialist lyrics of the Gang Show theme tune*, however, remain (“we’re riding along on the crest of a wave… and the world is ours”).

* In that thread, note that the very next post after the lyrics, a joke from ‘Bernard’, makes clear something about the underlying assumptions of the social atmosphere in which it exists (e.g. a “loin-cloth clad foreign looking burly bloke” must be a slave).

There are also clearly offensive songs in the Girlguiding singing tradition. I’m very fond of a song called ‘Red Men’, having learnt it in my youth: “We’re the men of the Old Dun Cow- How! All of us are red men, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men (mime cutting throat), Pow-wow! Pow-wow!” (I hope that the offensiveness of this doesn’t need explanation, but if it does, the phrase ‘stereotyping of Native Americans’ is going to be key.) I have heard it said that this is ok, so long as you know where you’re singing it and with whom, and that you’re being slightly offensive. I suspect that this means that the speaker thinks it’s not something for which she’s going to be punished so long as those who hear it aren’t offended or are too young to understand why it’s problematic. That she won’t be punished does not, however, make the action morally right.

In the UK, though, we’re unlikely to have any potential members in the Native American community to drive away. The problem becomes more pressing when in an area with a strong Asian community you are singing songs like this (I give it in full, as it’s short and an extract wouldn’t convey the whole problem):

I live in an itsy-bitsy housie,
I live on the third-third floor,
I take in a big amount of washing,
Frillies on the panties ten cents more.
I like chow-chow better than pow-wow,
I like pretty girl, she likes me.
Way down Honga-Kong,
Bigga man-a come along,
Take away my pretty girl,
Poor Chinese.

I refuse to sing this song, though I’m currently struggling to come up with an age-appropriate explanation which I can give the Brownies about why. (For that matter, I haven’t yet managed to explain to my fellow leaders, who are still singing it.)

Why are there no British-Chinese Brownies in our Pack? The answer seems obvious.

If we did have them, though, I wonder if we would be able to deal with them appropriately. I met a British Afro-Caribbean Brownie once who was being told off for taking much longer than the other girls to colour in her pictures of people. After a few minutes watching her, I realised that it was because where the white girls felt that the colour of the white paper was just fine for everyone’s faces and hands, she was finding pens in different shades of brown and pink and colouring in every area of skin. Colourblindness, colour-carelessness, develops in white children at a very young age, and usually lasts throughout adulthood.

Only this weekend, I found myself asking a group of Brownies to prepare a Brownie’s Own, a short service usually including a little drama, a suitable song or two, and a prayer either of their own composition or chosen from a book. We have a few resources for this, which are both outdated (our songbook is Come and Praise, a fine work in its way but one which contains mostly songs they never sing at school any more), and religiously narrow: the two prayer books are called ‘Prayers for Children’ (on the twee side, and too young for Brownies), and ‘Hello Jesus’ (nicely done, age-appropriate, but unmistakably Christian). I did not feel comfortable handing any of those to the one Muslim girl who is currently in our group. (We wrote our own, with her full participation.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that GirlguidingUK has much to offer British society. (I suspect that offering it unchanged, perhaps at all, in other countries, especially former colonies, has a very different set of implications, in which I’m not well-versed.) Before we can really do that well and inclusively, though, we need to challenge some of the implicit structural and traditional racism which is silently embedded in the movement.

I’d like to end by noting that racism isn’t our only problem. We struggle to make it clear that it’s open to non-Christian members (though it is true non-Buddhist atheists and republicans cannot currently join without lying, as our Promise, the membership criterion, has us promise “to do my best to love my God” and “to serve the Queen and my country…”). We have not yet really addressed the issue of transgendered members, assuming in a haze of cissexual privilege that women just are people with female bodies. And we’re working on including girls and young women with disabilities.

(Tangent: I was once at a Girlguiding conference where we were asked on a questionaire what could be done to get more disabled members. The woman next to me suggested that we “take a hammer to the ones we have.”)

She was joking, but she was also onto part of an answer: this must be changed from the inside. Publicity campaigns won’t help if people are put off by what they find; and if they find something worthwhile, accepting, inclusive, useful, they will stay and bring their friends along too. I think I’ll start by editing my songbook and investigating multi-faith prayer books for children.

Edited 26/4/2009 to add: a very good paper on race in classrooms also happens to note that Brownies is restricted to white girls (page 6).

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I was recently lucky enough to hear Helen Steven and Ellen Moxley speak to the Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship on the subject of activism. They have been extremely active over many years in the peace movement in Scotland, protesting against nuclear weapons. Hearing about their work is inspirational, but also sometimes daunting: some movements demand this kind of public protest, and if you’re after nuclear disarmament, equal rights to marry or work, or to raise awareness generally, then it is indispensable.

However, not all issues are best fought on the big stage. The personal is political, says an old feminist slogan, and that gives a hope that we can take action for our causes at a very immediate level. Taking it that we are concerned, for example, about the representation of people in fiction, we’d probably be laughed off the streets if we went to wave banners outside the BBC or a publishing company, but we can quietly and powerfully choose to watch programs and read books which do better. I’m following Verb Noire and 50 Books By POC at the moment, partly because I’ve been looking for good white women characters for much longer (and for gay male characters, mostly white of course, since I discovered slash fanfiction in my teens).

Several feminist blogs have recently posted about an advert for yet another product selling women hairlessness as the way to be beautiful. This morning, then, I took a feminist action in the shower: I didn’t shave. It’s easy for me to dismiss this (I didn’t shave because I’m lazy, because I’ve never shaved, because I always cut myself…) but it only takes the continuation of advertising like this (or the continued existence of young men like a former intimate acquaintance of mine who thought he’d like to have sex with me again but only once I’d trimmed a bit down there), to keep this in the realm of feminist actions. Something similar applies to the make-up I never wear.

Slightly more actively, reading, raising my own awareness so that I am more able to challenge problematic behaviour and speech by others, seems passive (I’m just checking my email, just skimming Google Reader, just sitting back and absorbing the words of others), but is actually a vital part of not only my development as a better human being, but as a better activist and ally.

Obviously, big actions are still important. I have every respect for the people who go on protest marches, who make banners, who stand in the streets and make their voices heard. Sometimes I even have energy to join them, one way or another, and the pile of standard replies from Members of Parliament on my desk is a reminder that I will write letters or sign petitions  in support of all sorts of causes: people seeking sanctuary, transsexual people in Oxfordshire, a national 24 hour helpline for victims of rape and sexual assault. (My ability to do so, and more especially my confidence that this is a thing worth doing, is of course a consequence of my race and class privilege.) But day to day, when I have revision to do and essays to write and my mind would rather be on paper-making or sewing or enjoying the sunshine, it helps to remember that the reading is important and rejecting the norms is worthwhile.

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