By Clementine Ford
In this edited version of her Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Clementine Ford asks why men like Alan Jones think women are ‘destroying the joint’, exposes how Hollywood contributes to assumptions that the default gender is male, and presents some damning statistics to prove that we’re not, in fact, all equal now.
To be a woman at the close of the 20th century. What good fortune. That’s what we keep hearing, anyway. The barricades have fallen, politicians assure us. Women have ‘made it’, the style pages cheer. Women’s fight for equality has ‘largely been won’, Time magazine announces. Enrol at any university, join any law firm, apply for credit at any bank. Women have so many opportunities now corporate leaders say, that we don’t really need equal opportunity policies. Women are so equal now, lawmakers say, that we no longer need equal rights legislation.
So begins Susan Faludi’s Backlash. The backlash she spoke of manifested the idea that women had been somehow damaged by all that equality. That the reality of being equal had somehow made them miserable – that newspapers fretted about how women were coping with the infertility crisis, the man shortage, the betrayal of being told they could ‘have it all’ and, once getting there, realising that having it all was bloody hard work.
Backlash was published in 1991. And 20 years later, the backlash continues. My feminist peers and I, scrapping for our minute share of the media pie, are, in amongst the anonymous abuse, the repeated accusations of misandry and the violent threats of rape, constantly instructed that ‘equality has been achieved, so shut your mouths you hairy-armpitted feminazis!’
I mean, God. Even the insults are carbon dated.
Let’s have a look at how equal we are, here in 2012. This year alone, prominent US republicans have coined phrases like ‘legitimate rape’, voted to further diminish women’s reprodutive rights, including legislating in some states to subject women seeking abortions to an internal ultrasound (which is not legitimate rape, because rather than a man in a balaclava in a park and a woman out jogging, it involves state legislators and sluts who should have kept their legs shut). And they’ve called women sluts on the radio because they didn’t like them running off their mouths about state-funded birth control. At every turn, they have frozen women out of the conversation about their own bodies and reproductive health, because, as powerful white men elected to government, they are apparently more entitled and qualified to speak on these matters than those who their decisions will affect.
Our own radio shock jocks in Australia call women ‘sluts’ and ‘fat slags’ on air when discussing pack rape scenarios involving famous sporting ‘heroes’ or women who’ve given them bad reviews – recently, Alan Jones went on an on-air tirade about how disgusting it was for Australia to provide aid to Pacific nations in order to empower more women to become legislators and business leaders: ‘She [the prime minister] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating,’ he told listeners.
‘Women are destroying the joint!’
Our own prime minister has endured a campaign of sexist abuse ever since she took office, demonstrated most insidiously by people’s belief that they’re entitled to refer to her by her first name. To those for whom equality has not just been granted (as if it was theirs to give), but has been done so grudgingly, Gillard’s status as PM is sufficient evidence that feminism has succeeded and feminism’s continued campaign for more ‘equality’ is simply greed. The subtext is clear: ‘What more do you want?’
Now, aggrieved men’s rights activists are growing in numbers, and they still insist that women – all of whom have apparently achieved not just equality but actual superiority – are trying to destroy men. That in a mere 40 years, women have not just managed to quell the tide of gender oppression that has for thousands of years seen them be the victims of sexual assault, violence, forced marriage, financial dependence, sex trafficking and a general silencing of their voices, but reversed it to the point where men have now become the abused chattel, the dismissed, the voiceless.
Thousands of years of oppression. Reversed and redirected. In 40 years. Who knew it was so easy?
Of course, such a thing is ridiculous. Because the problem with the idea of equality is how difficult it is to measure. When people say, ‘equality has been reached’, what they really mean is that it is now (mostly) illegal to directly legislate in a way that disadvantages women over men. It is illegal to say that a woman can’t be made CEO of a Fortune 500 company – but does that mean she will be? No, because now we have insidious indicators of sexism. And every woman who takes on a role previously legislated (whether officially or socially) to belong to a man will now be seen by some to have stolen that ‘right’ away from men in general. To men fearful of feminism, equality is so tied up in their idea of their own rights to power that to share it can only mean relinquishing some of the things that they feel belong to them.
In Peggy Orenstein’s book Girlhood, on the matter of girls’ education, she recounts the tale of a teacher who, convinced she didn’t prioritise boys over girls like some studies suggested, tracked the number of times she called on boys to answer questions. She was astonished to see that, despite her fervent belief otherwise, she subconsciously favoured boys when it came to seeking answers and opinions. She immediately set out to rectify this, creating a system whereby she could visually track a fair alternation of the girls and boys she called on.
Within a couple of days, boys in the teacher’s class approached her to complain about the new system. They accused her of being unfair – they saw it as girls being given more at the expense of the boys, even though they were at last getting exactly the same.
The conclusion is simple, and very worrying. For these boys, Orenstein writes, equality was perceived as a loss.
Such little boys grow up to be the kind of men who believe women’s liberation comes at the expense of their own power; that for them to respect it, support it or even acknowledge it, it must prioritise the needs of men first and foremost, and ensure they never have to give anything up. Essentially, to the men’s rights activists, the only legitimate form of women’s liberation is one that has no affect on them at all because it happens in a realm peripheral to men – much like the concerns and lives of women in general.
Frankly, there is so much evidence to offer in favour of the idea that equality is still merely an illusion. I could talk about the still-horrifying rates of rape and sexual assault, both the actual experience of it and the social impetus to provide excuses for it. I could tell you about the female judge who, in sentencing an off-duty police officer to probation for the sexual assault of a woman in a bar, told the woman that she’d hoped she’d learned a valuable lesson – that if she hadn’t have been there, this would never have happened – that if women would take more care of themselves, and not dress like sluts, drink in public, run their mouths off, then men wouldn’t be forced to rape them. I could talk about the 11-year-old girl who, after being gang raped in Texas, had the New York Times run a story suggesting she may have ‘dressed older’ and questioned why her mother wasn’t watching her.
I could question the fact that of all the approximately 30 AFL players ever accused of sexual assault, not one has been convicted. I could mention the pay gap, which is well documented and consistently ignored by people who refuse to see any gender disparity in the workplace, and like to argue in favour of a merit system – as if the majority of people being given promotions and high-paying jobs and who also just happen to be men are just naturally more meritorious than women.
I could talk about the beauty industry and the empowerment industry, and how the two have joined forces in an unholy marriage to try and convince women the world over that the most liberating choice they can make is to rid their vaginas of hair. I could talk about the co-opting of empowerment in general, and how calling every choice a woman makes ‘empowering’ by virtue of the fact she’s been allowed to make it just shows how very far we have to go.
But today, I want to demonstrate how women, in all this mass of equality we’re enjoying, are only allowed to lay claim to a certain percentage of the public space. That for most people, equality means things not being quite as bad as they were before. Women may only hold 17% of positions of public office, but don’t we know that the job of prime minister has ten magic points? We’re destroying the joint, remember.
The Global Media Monitoring Project recently produced a report called Who Makes the News? The report assessed the breakdown of gender across international news outlets – radio, print, TV and the internet. Specifically, the percentages of stories that focused on women or men as their subjects. The research covered just under 17,000 news items, just over 20,000 news personnel (announcers, presenters and reporters) and just over 35,000 total news subjects, i.e. people interviewed in the news and those whom the news was about. Basically, this was no simple Daily Mail UK study about women preferring shoes to sex.
Here are some facts:
In 1995, only 17% of news stories featured a woman as their subject.
In 2010, when women are equal, that figure had limped ahead to a pathetic 24% – a mere 7% jump in 15 years. Overall, the analysis showed that men were overwhelmingly more likely to be the subjects of media focus – three to one in fact – and that when women WERE the subjects of a news story, they were more likely to be presented as victims, to have their family status mentioned or to simply be photographed.
But the stats get more depressing when you examine how women function within these stories. Their greatest contribution, at 44% of exposure on the news, is to represent ‘popular opinion’, compared to men’s 56% contribution in this area.
So, in the area where men’s voices are LEAST sought out, they still dominate the space where women have been given the MOST opportunity to speak.
Women feature least in news stories as official spokespersons or experts, at 19% and 20% respectively. Compare this to stats of men’s representation in these areas: when called on as a spokesperson or expert, men feature in at a whopping 81% and 80%, their highest showing.
I realise that sounds like a lot of numbers, but put simply, this is what it means. That in 2010, when men and women have supposedly achieved equality, where women’s voices are supposedly considered equal to those of men, where women who dispute this are told to shut up because feminism’s over, and to go and burn some more bras, the very essence of what drives our public dialogue – the news cycle – is not only dominated by stories about men by 3:1 but that four fifths of people sought after to speak as experts on issues of national and international interest are men. Four fifths. 80%. I’m going to repeat that, because it goes to the heart of how equality is a lie. Eighty per cent of spokespeople and experts sought after to speak in the media and the news are men.
If you are uncritically consuming the news, as most people do, how can you possibly not internalise the idea that men’s voices carry more weight and authority simply because they are the ones you hear the most? How can you fail to link the idea that men are more trustworthy, because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t ask for their opinions so often? On any given week, Q and A will feature four men (including host Tony Jones) and two women. This is considered gender parity – any more is the ABC ‘pandering’ to political correctness, sacrificing expert voices to satisfy feminist banshees.
Equality is perceived as a loss.
How can we expect children, who consume and internalise the messages of media in frightening levels, not to assume that public dialogue and space belongs to men when we demonstrate that to them on a daily basis?
And speaking of children, let’s talk about the world girls and boys learn about on screen. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is instrumental in spearheading groundbreaking research into the representations of girls and women on screen, particularly in family-centric films. As the centre says, we live by the myth that family films are a kind of ‘haven’ for girls – that in a world of sexualisation gone mad and gender inequality, girls can at least find solace in seeking out Strong Female Characters (and more on that later) in the films and media they consume.
In fact, the institute interviewed 108 content creators from the leading box office family films made between 2006 and 2009, and questioned them about female representation in these films. They confirmed their own findings: that of all the speaking roles in these films, only around 29.2% of them were female. To put that into more context, for every female who was allowed to speak in a leading box office family film made between 2006 and 2009, there were 2.42 male characters given voices.
Is this the fault of the creators? Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1565 content creators (at the time of research), only 7% of directors are female. Only 13% of writers are female. Only 20% of producers are female. As the Institute says, this translates to 4.8 working males behind-the-scenes to every one female – a fact that may explain why, in these same leading box office films, only 19.5% of characters with jobs were females. The other 80.5% was taken up by men, who, as I’ve already pointed out, were given two thirds more opportunity to speak.
A friend of mine, Emily Maguire, last year wrote an article called Girls on Film in which she recalled some of the attitudes of children in the writing workshops she facilitates. Emily talks about one of her eight-year-old students – a girl – who wrote a story about a fierce but heroic pirate called Jessica. ‘Pirates aren’t girls!’ one of her classmates protested, and several others agreed.
‘What about Anamaria in Pirates of the Caribbean,’ the writer shot back. ‘She’s not a main one,’ came the reply. ‘The main pirates are all boys.’
The main pirates are all boys, Emily writes. So are the main robots, monsters, bugs, soldiers, toys, cars, trains, rats and lions.
You’re allowed to include a girl in your motley group of ragtag heroes – but she’ll never be one of the main ones.
One of my favourite indicators for gender bias in the study of films is the Bechdel test. Named after Alison Bechdel, the wonderful cartoonist and author of cult classic Dykes to Watch Out For, the test is applied to a piece of pop culture and has to answer yes to the following three questions in order to pass.
When you apply the test, even to your favourite films, films you would swear blind were progressive and feminist and nuanced, it’s amazing how many fail. One of the most lucrative franchises of the past decade, Harry Potter, dismally fails the Bechdel test. Does this mean that we need to strike Potter off the reading list, do away with him in a book burning frenzy, lead a feminist charge against him? Of course not. It’s a wonderful tale about good versus evil, morality, friendship and the quest to try and do what is right rather than what is easy. But because it features an eponymous hero who is male – and this is key – there would never have been any question of its universal appeal.
Harry Potter can be read by all people, because his gender is irrelevant. He can tell a universal tale, because the tales of men are seen to be universally interesting. Unlike stories about women, you don’t need to have any kind of special qualification to read about men. You don’t need any niche experience, or interest in the peripheral affairs of some strange subset of humans whose stories would probably hold very little interest for you given you don’t have their weird genetic makeup.
If Rowling – an author who abbreviated her name in part to remove the stigma of connecting the idea of femaleness to a book that was supposed to be for everyone – had written a book about Harriet Potter, a witch who saved the world, would it have had anywhere near as much universal appeal?
Of course not. Everyone knows that the main pirates are all boys.
Of the 12 films to win Academy Awards for Best Picture since 2000, only two pass the Bechdel Test. Our culture is so little interested in women’s participation that we fail to see the problem with rewarding art about the breadth and depth of the human experience that doesn’t even feature them.
When Jennifer Kessler, founder of the website The Hathor Legacy, a discussion of women in print and film, wrote the following about studying script writing at UCLA:
‘My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, my lecturers explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”’
You might argue that this is oversensitivity on mine and Kessler’s part, that we’re trying to see things that aren’t there.
Well, we’re certainly expecting little kids to see things that aren’t there to save us from having to show them. In 2011, Disney Pixar released a movie about a girl trapped in a tower for 18 years with only 70 feet of golden hair to keep her company. Everyone knows this story. Everyone knows that it’s called Rapunzel. But Disney Pixar announced early on that it would be changing the title of the story to the less female-centric Tangled. Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation Studios, said, ‘We did not want to be put in a box. Some people might assume it’s a fairytale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.’
Equality is perceived as a loss.
What Catmull’s saying here is that if you make people think it’s a movie about a girl, they’ll think it’s a movie only FOR girls. Because why would boys be interested in watching a story that has nothing to do with them? The marketing campaign for Tangled emphasised the role of the male lead as sharing the spotlight with Rapunzel.
In their research, the Institute found that films with more than one woman working in a position of director of resulted featured significantly more women in speaking roles than films with a heavy male production quota. But of the 13 senior crew working on Tangled – the directors, the writers, the producers, the music composer and the film editor – only one was a woman, Aimee Scribner, an associate producer. And consider this: Tangled, one of the few films across any target bracket whose protagonist was a girl (in 2011, women accounted for only 11% of lead protagonists in mainstream cinema, DOWN 5% from a decade earlier) also features 35 other speaking roles. Of those total 36 speaking roles, only 12 are female. Of the ten speaking roles with actual names, only two are female.
And Disney was so concerned that this film would appear too female-centric that they not only changed the title, but repackaged the marketing to assure boys that there would be something in it for them.
When you are shown repeatedly that you are only worth taking up a certain amount of space in the cultural dialogue, you’ll start to believe that you have no right to ask for more. To have real equality, we need to be equally represented. Our opinions need to be thought of as equally important. Our expertise needs to be equally sought out as worthy and meaningful.
Equality? Hardly. Everyone knows that all the main pirates are boys. And equality is perceived as a loss.
In this week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox, From Prim to Poledance, Michelle Smith will look at girls, sex and popular culture. Take your lunch break at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday, from 12.45pm to 1.15pm.
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