What if women cared about sport and men cared about celebrities?

Sometimes I like to test my comfort with the world and switch things around in my head to see how it looks from the other side. We get so used to seeing things in black and white that it appears normal until you flip to white and black and suddenly it is very, very different.

We recently watched the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher and I enjoyed imagining that all the male characters were women and all the female characters were men (this would mean approximately 20 women were in the movie and two of the characters were men). Jack Reacher would be played by a 51 year old woman – maybe Jodi Foster. She’s a drifter with nothing to lose (and she says so, in the movie, in actual dialogue, and isn’t trying to be funny) who was once some kind of elite soldier but is now holed up in a shack somewhere tropical shagging young men half her age who don’t like wearing clothes. She’s called back into duty by a (female) ex-colleague and starts hunting down (female) criminals responsible for a wave of crimes across the city. She’s still tough and can figure out a crime scene in 30 seconds and can fight people half her age! She meets a young lawyer 20 years her junior – maybe Sam Worthington. Their chemistry sizzles!! The lawyer has issues because his mother is the district attorney and they disagree over lots of things. Sam is the only man in a sea of crime-fighting, maybe-corrupt women but don’t worry he totally holds his own, because he’s smart and has been to law school. At the end of the movie Sam is being held hostage by the criminals (and some of the corrupt crime-fighting women) but Jodi rescues him just in time and they pash. But you know Jodi won’t hang around for long, because she’s a drifter with nothing to lose who enjoys hitchhiking and tropical shacks, and Sam will have to go back to his boring life and boring office and overbearing mother.

I did enjoy the movie but imagining it in this way made me realise how very ridiculous it was and how easily we accept that the elite soldier is a man and the suited lawyer is the woman (although I guess we’ve come a bit of a way for her to have a job at all?) and she’s the one held hostage and he’s the one who rescues her but also gets to piss off immediately because he’s a loner. Would it have been made if Jack Reacher was a woman and only 2 per cent of the characters were men? Of course not – they can’t even figure out how to make a Wonder Woman movie because apparently that female character is ‘tricky‘. I’m not sure why they think this, since years after Buffy proved that people will watch ‘tricky’ female characters in action plots, the Hunger Games focused on a female protagonist and it made shitloads of money.

Another ‘what if’ feminist game I like to play, as someone who has very little time for celebrities and even less time for sports, is watching the news on TV and imagining if celebrities and the various entertainment industries were the serious news that came before the weather and sports was the ‘fluff’. The ABC would barely touch the sports, usually only if someone important died. The commercial networks would have a fair bit of sports but if something big had happened in celebrity land that day, it would be pushed back to a few minutes right at the end. Being interested in sports would be a bit of a guilty pleasure – there’d be magazines in the kitchen at work or at the hairdresser’s but you wouldn’t want anyone to catch you really reading them. You could talk about it, but not as loudly as the people who talked about the latest Hollywood news.

And yes I know lots of women are interested in sports and sports news. And yes I know lots of women aren’t interested in celebrities or Hollywood gossip. But it’s still a fun game to play, as someone who considers most of what happens in the sports world to be as important and interesting as what happens in Hollywood. Which is to say: not very.


The most beautiful girl in the world

Beauty is a funny thing, and as a woman and the mother of a girl who will grow into a woman, there are three things I know about beauty that I want Emma to know as well.

First, we all know looks aren’t everything. There may be a universal formula for beauty (it has to do with symmetry and the size of the eyes and their proximity to the nose, among other things), but at the same time it’s pretty subjective and very socially/culturally/historically contextual. Since we tend to idealise youth, beauty is also fleeting and there comes a time in life when you are expected to actually have something of value to offer the world rather than just your looks. Like any parent, I want Emma to grow up knowing that her looks don’t matter – that what matters is her brain, her spirit, her heart. I want her to be a good person, a smart person. Toby and I are both so vain it will probably be a relief to me if she takes after other family members in that regard, since I assume life is easier if you don’t care about what your eyebrows are doing or if your socks match the rest of your outfit.

Second, anyone who’s spent any time thinking about it knows that even though looks don’t matter, they do. This is a truth we should all resist and advocate against, every day. We know that everyone – but especially women, let’s not pretend otherwise – is judged on how they physically present to the world. We know that women who wear makeup to work are considered more professional. We know the invisibility that comes with age, or disability, or disfigurement. We know that if we turn up to work with a new haircut or new suit, someone (a woman, probably) will notice and comment. We have all been in conversations where women took turns to see who could denigrate their own appearance the most. We know there are male public figures who would not be public figures if they were women, because they are kind of funny looking, or just plain old, and we don’t really deal with that well when it comes to women. Looks matter and if they didn’t there would be no market for the diet industry, plastic surgery, gossip magazines, cosmetics, personal stylists, every single service offered by my day spa, and so on. None of this makes it okay. I want Emma, when she realises this, to realise that it’s wrong. I want her to value people – and herself – based on what they are really like, rather than what they look like.

Third, I want Emma to know that in our eyes, she is the most beautiful girl in the world. I want her to know she is perfect, from the top of her impressively large head, to her just-crinkly ears, her short torso and long, gorgeously squashy legs, to the tops of her delicious squishy feet. It’s the package that holds her brain and her soul, and it’s perfect. I would feel this way, even if in the eyes of others, it wasn’t.

Every day I tell Emma she’s clever, and funny, and strong, and lucky. I also tell her she’s beautiful, and I will keep telling her this every day she’s in this house. And probably when she’s gone from our house and living out there in the world I will send her random texts/virtual thought bubbles to annoy remind her. And the reason I will do this – the reason I want her to know she’s the most beautiful girl in the world – is because thanks to the world we live in, she will get enough messages from enough people that she isn’t beautiful at all. The TV, magazines, billboards, her peers, will all give her this message – directly or indirectly. It can be a devastating message (see point 2 above), and that’s why I don’t ever want her to get that message from us. There will be other people in her life to back us up of course, but I know we need to set a solid foundation. She might be one of those lucky people who truly doesn’t think looks matter at all, and never gives any thought to her physical appearance or whether it’s pleasing to herself or others. I know those people exist but I suspect they are incredibly rare. So assuming she’s a normal person who has moments or days where she feels completely unbeautiful, hopefully there will still be that part of her deep down that knows she is and that there are people in the world who think she’s the best thing they’ve ever seen, ever.

And finally, I think part of making sure that message really sinks in, so it becomes part of her self-belief, is for us, but especially me, to lead by example. This piece nearly had me in tears the other day and had me appreciating yet again my own parents. I think mum and dad were very aware that they were raising three girls in a particular world – we were raised in a house where no one dieted, no one was ugly or too fat or too skinny. We were told we were beautiful, among all the other important things. Dad told mum she was beautiful, and he told us we had a beautiful mum, and we learnt that this was how the world was when you loved each other. And so we will love Emma, fiercely, and I will try to make sure to love myself, even on a fat day or a bad hair day or a blah day, and really when it comes to beauty and my girl I think that’s all we can do for now.

Wives, mothers and daughters – or people?

This post was linked in the comments to a different blog, and I found it fascinating. I had never seen an argument like this before. I’ve only read a handful of the 1000+ comments (!!), some of which mirrored my thoughts. Others were agreeing with the post and trying to explain why, but none of those helped me agree. The general gist is that when talking to men about sexual assault, you shouldn’t use phrases like “They are our wives, daughters, mothers,” to explain why violence against women is bad, because women have value as humans, not because they are related to men.

You don’t have to do much psychology (or philosophy, or ethics, or anthropology, or sociology, etc etc) to understand just how important the ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to humans. There are people like us, and there are people who aren’t like us. The first group gets most of our empathy and understanding. The second group gets a variety of other reactions – misunderstanding at the least, fear, hatred, exclusion, active oppression at the most. Of course, who you personally place into these groups depends on who you are in the first place. But for those of us in the majority, the ‘other’ is necessarily the minority – groups already marginalised and usually disadvantaged in some (or many) ways. The more you see a person as being ‘other’, the less they will matter (although this might show itself in a very active oppression or other reaction on your part, rather than just ignoring them). The closer a person is to your in group – whether it’s real or perceived closeness – the more they will matter, the more of your empathy they’ll get.

It’s pretty basic and we see it all the time.

Sometimes it can lead to good things – for example this is why a Republican senator might change his vote on marriage equality once he learns his son is gay. People can change their minds for the better on all sorts of issues once a person or group becomes less ‘them’ and more ‘us’, which is why public figures are generally applauded when they speak about their depression, for example – it’s breaking some of the stigma. Programs like those that link up police officers with local young’uns – for boxing lessons or something – are based on same idea of familiarity. Breast cancer awareness is off the charts, partly in thanks to the number of high profile women and men affected by it who can then talk about it in the public arena or even establish things like the Jane McGrath foundation.

But obviously the same phenomenon leads to pretty much all the bad stuff in the world, ever. Once people are ‘them’ and not ‘us’ it is very easy to dehumanise them, to deny their rights or their very existence. Hello genocide, slavery, colonisation, asylum seeker policy, abortion laws or same-sex marriage.

The post that has had me thinking about this the last couple of weeks was talking about this in the context of Steubenville and other cases like that, cases where women have been assaulted and people who are sympathising more with their attackers are told to imagine that the woman is their ‘wife, sister or mother’. The writer claims that this reduces women’s value to their relationship to men. This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, women also have wives, sisters and mothers. Secondly, using phrases like this is acknowledging the fact that people naturally divide others into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and one of the ways to better understand a situation is to imagine it is affecting ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

When I find myself speeding through a road work zone with actual people working on it (as opposed to an empty one), I slow down and remind myself that if that was Toby working on the road I wouldn’t want people zipping past him at 60 km/h. When I hear of a cyclist or motorcyclist in an accident, my stomach clenches as I imagine it’s my dad or Toby being hit and say a quick thankyou that it’s not them. I imagine the families of pilots or skydivers or fishing enthusiasts do the same when they hear of a plane crash or a landing gone wrong or a freak wave. When we hear of terrible things happening overseas in familiar places – bombings in Bali, London or Boston- we think of the people we know who live there, or were just visiting a week ago. When the old Canberra hospital was disastrously imploded and killed a 12 year old girl, grandma rang mum just to make sure it wasn’t my sister, who was 12 at the time. Anyone who’s had a child would surely agree with me that while hearing stories of babies or children being hurt is never easy, once you have your own it becomes gut wrenchingly awful. There is just something in us that makes our ears prick up when a story affects people we know, or it could.

This doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t mean the lives of our loved ones are intrinsically more valuable than anyone else’s and it doesn’t mean we don’t care about anyone except our very nearest and dearest. It doesn’t mean that if a bombing happens in a place we’ve never heard of, to people not like us, that would never affect someone we know, that we don’t care. We do care, but at the same time if we let ourselves feel everything for everyone, we would never get out of bed. We need to have a circle of care, getting less intense the further out you look, because that is the only way we can function. And between all of us and our different circles, we can care about almost everything and everyone. The problem of course is when a person or group of people doesn’t feature in anyone’s circle, because then they are likely to be forgotten – and no one will slow down in the road works.

All this is to say, I don’t think using the ‘wives, sisters, mothers’ argument reduces women as victims of violence. It is attempting to do the opposite. Part of the problem with rape culture is that it assumes that some women, on some level, deserve to be raped or otherwise treated as objects for others’ amusement or pleasure – these women belong to ‘them’. And other women – those who are like ‘us’ – don’t. People who believe this to be true would never include the deserving women in their circle. But the girl who was raped at a party no more deserved to be raped than your sister or wife or mother would deserve it, drunk or sober or anything else the media and courts somehow see fit to include in their descriptions of a crime. That is the point people are trying to make, to imagine that your teenage daughter got drunk at a party with her friends, people she knew well, and imagine she is attacked – maybe while conscious, maybe not – and then imagine it’s her fault. Can’t imagine it? Exactly.


Little Women

The other day we caught a bit of Little Women on TV. What I think of as the new version, even though since it’s got Winona Ryder as Jo I guess that shows my age? I’ve read of Marmee March being referred to as one of the first feminist mothers in literature, so I was paying extra attention to her. There was a scene where she was discussing the difference between how society treated men and women with Meg and Jo and she said to them, “I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you girls into a more just world. But I know you’ll make it a better place.” (Something like that.) And I’ve been thinking about that line ever since.

Emma is a lucky girl, as I was. She was a wanted baby, she is healthy and loved, she will go to school and be surrounded by books and have a job and be able to do just about anything she wants in life. And yet, as lucky as she is to be born into this family in this country at this time, because she is female she is also more likely to be poor, to be homeless, to be abused or assaulted even by the people who are supposed to love her the most. She is more likely to be in a low-paid job, and even if she’s not, she could still be paid less than the man doing the same job beside her. If she defies her genetic makeup and is a member of a world class sports team, few will know or care and she almost certainly won’t be able to make a living from it. She will be judged on her looks as much as – if not more than – her brains. Men – politicians, doctors, bureaucrats, hopefully not partners – will assume to understand her body and therefore control it and what she does with it. When she looks at, and listens to, so-called important people – leaders, thinkers, achievers – she will see and hear mostly men. She will find at many turns in life that things just don’t seem the same for her as they do the boys, for no apparent reason. These facts of life are enough to break my heart when I look at my girl and see only perfection and possibility.

Of course we will do our best to give Emma a good life and equip her with the skills and resources she needs to rise above all of this, and of course the odds are she is going to be better than fine, but when I stop to think about it I can’t help wishing, a whole 150 years after Marmee March was raising her daughters, that we’d brought her into a more just world. But just like Marmee, not to put any pressure on a baby or anything, I can only assume that our girl will also make the world a better place.

How TV is totally shitting me lately

Argh, things to make a feminist woman person angry come so thick and fast on TV it’s hard to keep up.

There’s a soap ad at the moment where the mum is spending the morning pouring cereal for kids old enough to pour their own (surely? How old is that?) and helping dad pack his briefcase when he is surely old enough to do that himself. And she’s smiling beatifically like all TV martyrs mums, and instead of being impressed with her organisation skills, or asking what soup kitchen she’s running today, or really valuing anything about this woman, you know what her kids and husband do? They smell her hands. And they are so happy. Because I guess her hands smell great. And she looks happy, because I guess that’s the main thing in life for a stay-at-home mum, what we really need to aspire to. Get your kids and husband their breakfast, and make sure your hands smell great.

Then there’s a life insurance ad, where the mum and school-aged kids are sending dad off to work wrapped in bubble wrap. Because, hello! He’s their only source of income so if he got injured, they’d be in deep trouble! And the neighbour looks at this (apparently able-bodied and sound-of-mind) woman in this big beautiful house with her kids who are going to school (and apparently have no special needs) and says, “Maybe you could get a job?” Yeah, in opposite land. A woman supporting a family? Hilarious. No, the neighbour says, “Oh just get life insurance.” Of course.

The other day on the ABC there was a little story about the Australian cricket team winning the world cup. It came after all the other stories about sport. Really, you say? But they won the world cup! But you see, it was the women’s team. So it barely counts. Out of interest I watched the headlines scrolling down the bottom of the screen – you know, the big news you can’t miss – and of the two cricket stories, that one didn’t warrant a mention.

(Aside: Speaking of women in sport I’m really curious as to whether the ACCC report covered women’s sport at all. I wonder if the results of that report and investigation will do anything for women’s sport. Probably not, but I’d be interested. I’m also interested in the report out today on the rock-bottom morale of the swimming team at last year’s Olympics considered the awesome results of the Paralympic team and whether they might have something to learn. Maybe all that time spent selling raffle tickets outside Coles helps with team morale? Who’d have thought.)

On the other hand, I also caught a very pretty young blonde thing presenting the weather the other day…gorgeous pregnant belly covered by a raspberry-coloured dress. So maybe things are changing, slowly, inconstantly, and maybe mostly for the gorgeous and young among us. But changing nonetheless.

Contradictory Parenting

One day when I was pregnant, Toby and I were standing in front of the bathroom mirror, preening side by side. I think I was straightening my hair and he was moussing his. I looked at him and said, “How are we going to convince our daughter she’s beautiful just the way she is, if we’re both so vain?”

He shrugged. “Maybe she’ll make us better people.”

That sums up the dilemma that keeps occurring to me when I think about raising a girl. Well, children really, but there are some dilemmas that are pretty female-specific. There are contradictions in this world, real and perceived, that I am still in the process of understanding if not accepting, as a feminist who gets waxes, wears ridiculous shoes, thinks mowing the lawn is Toby’s job, who kind of liked it when the nice man at the deli called me ‘sweetie’, who can only see the world in shades of grey rather than anything even approaching black or white.

There are things I will say to her, over and over again if I have to, because they are the truth, the core truth of life. If they are all she ever knows, she will be okay. But after the truth comes the parentheses, containing another layer of the truth that says something not about life but about life in this particular world, this time, this country. Maybe this is the truth I won’t have to say out loud, that she will figure out on her own, hopefully not the hard way, if we do our jobs right. This is the layer I wish didn’t exist, that I hope one day won’t exist.  With any luck, Emma will never have to worry about her own daughter or granddaughter needing to articulate this extra layer, because it won’t be there.

Your body is perfect, just the way it is. (But if lip gloss or dying your hair makes you happy, that’s ok.)

You are in charge of your body and how you present yourself to the world. (But you are not leaving the house like that.)

It’s okay to have casual sex if that’s what makes you happy. (But be prepared for what people will think/say/post on Facebook about you. These people may be the same ones you’ve slept with.)

Sexual assault (any assault) is never, ever the victim’s fault. (But you still need to look out for yourself, and your girlfriends.)

Other dilemmas are equally important for sons and daughters.

You don’t need to yell or cry to get my attention. (But I’m not going to come rushing with every little sound you make.)

Having the latest and greatest clothes/gadgets is not what life is about. (But it’s ok to want them, and to really enjoy them when you’re lucky enough to have them.)

You are always, always welcome in this house, which is your home. (But you really need to move out.)

And perhaps, the biggest one of all:

You are the centre of my world. You are not the centre of the world.

I’ve only been a parent for six months but already I can see a great chunk of the next 18+ years of my life will be spent pondering this, turning it over in my mind, getting it wrong, hoping I’ve got it right.