Wednesday, 8 July 2009


I recently bought a copy of Glamour magazine (yeah shut up they were giving away my favourite brand of mascara) and, among all the body snarking, unflattering clothes and general feminist-baiting nonsense, I noticed this golden nugget-

Hey, it's OK... secretly enjoy a construction worker's wolf-whistle, but give him the death stare anyway.

Heh, yeah. You know what else I secretly love, ladies? When an old guy is chasing me around the park when I'm in my underwear and we disappear behind a bush and when we come out the other side, I'm chasing him! So funny.

But something interesting happened yesterday. I was out in my short shorts and boots and my route took me past a building site. I braced myself for the usual nonsense when I got looked over, but then this builder did something different- he smiled at me. And, partly out of surprise, I smiled back. Obviously the guy only thought I was attractive; having never layed eyes on me before he clearly wasn't interested in my sparkling personality. But instead of reducing me to parts, he chose to treat me like a human being. I'm always going to respond better to a smile than a hurled comment like "Show us your beaver" (tragically genuine).

I've had a lot of nasty, abusive supposed come-ones hurled at me and I'm not sure how anyone expects me to respond positively to "Nice legs love, you want to wrap em around me." It took me a disturbingly long time to realise that these weren't supposed to work like that. These men didn't want to get me into bed, they wanted me to know my place. They wanted me to know that I didn't have the freedom to just walk down the street in an outfit I look good in and expect not to get hassled.

That said, I do believe that it is possible to come on to a stranger without completely objectifying them. The "humourless feminist" trope is often used to label women who resist objectification as anti-fun and anti-sex, but I know the difference between being hit on and dehumanised. The builder who smiled at me, or the man in Boston who yelled "Girl, you're looking good! Are you feeling good", were making an effort to engage with me as a person rather than just tits and ass for their viewing pleasure. And I check people out, I think many of us do. We all know where to draw the line, it's just that some of us choose not to. Like I keep saying, men are not animals. Men have control and the ability to make decisions. We just need to kick away this frame-work that allows many to make bad ones.*

There is still a problem with even the most well-intentioned heckles, though. We are so used to being accused of leading men on and this being used to defend crimes against our minds and bodies that it shouldn't be a surprise when we don't smile back. I have had pleasant conversations turn unexpectedly to forceful demands for my number, or coffee, or insistent offers of a ride, so I stopped conversing with strangers. I guy on a bus leered at me hitching my tights and after I expressed my disinterest, he loudly conversed at a girl who clearly didn't speak English well, shouting about how "nice" it was to meet a "nice girl" on a bus for once. Why should we be game and giggly when the fact of "being nice" may be taken down and used as evidence against us?

Obviously, a lot needs to change and so much of it is out of our power. The pick-up culture needs to go, the culture of disrespect, the culture of expectation and objectification. It's so ingrained and needs to be whittled down over generations as we teach our children to respect their minds and bodies and the minds and bodies of others. In the short term, we have to try to be less afraid of being called boring or frigid or no fun. Smile back or don't smile back, but don't be scared.

*There is a thought provoking comment about this article- which suggests that, if men are such uncontrollable primal creatures, then why the hell do they have all the global positions of power? You can't have it both ways, Berlusconi. I recommend this article, and indeed the site, if you like science and hate misuse of it to further unpleasant personal aims. Thanks to Paul for the link.

Friday, 3 July 2009

On Not Getting Married

I think the most offensive thing that's ever been said to me was by a very close friend. We were discussing marriage and I was asked for my take. I said that I didn't really believe in it. The response was "You don't believe in love?". Now, I doubt the person in question even remembers this exchange and would possibly be kind of embarassed by now, since it was kind of a while ago. But it made a deep impression on me and got me thinking very deeply about why we still can't really divorce love and marriage.

The origins of marriage are pretty mysterious and lots of theories have been thrown out, including controlling the spread of disease, identifying genetic lines (which makes sense if the results of inbreeding are seen), contol of female sexuality and property laws. Marriage cropped up independently in a great many of the world's cultures*, leading both religious and secular to the conclusion that it was a pretty important thing. But most of these factors are no longer relevent. We don't live in tribes, we have health-care and the world has been taking tentative steps towards treating women as equal citizens for a while. Marriage these days is ideally about love, and while the taints of misogyny linger in the associated gender roles of "husband" and "wife", they are very rarely seen as being good motivations for marriage. It's all about the love.

Now, having been exposed to our culture at all growing up in this society, I too felt from an early age that I was going to grow up, fall in love and get married. I had Disney-fied fantasies of princess weddings, horses and family-members weeping with joy. My playmates at primary school would act out little weddings under the doting eyes of our supervisors, even as their parents fought and cheated and divorced. My father dying young, I got to mythologise my parents marriage. They married on the cheap, the church decorated by donated flowers, and it is still one of the most beautiful scenes I could imagine. When I was older my mother, sensibly, pointed out that we can't have known how their marriage would have turned out, but I knew, because they were in love.

I think this child-like idealism has permeated society to the point where the symbol of marriage, the wedding, is much more important than the marriage itself. The wedding industrial complex is cynically built upon our fantasies and people are encouraged to spend much much more money than they can afford on a single day, rather than the rest of their lives that that day is supposed to signify. In media geared towards women in particular marriage is a milestone that proves one's worth. Not the falling in love, it is the act of getting married that proves that you have made it as a human being. Divorce continues to be rife, the recent drop turning out, sadly, to have rather a lot to do with the fact that couples could no longer afford to seperate. If anything, the rise in divorce as acted as fuel for the idealistic passions of the young and in love; our love is different. Our love is special. Our love will survive against all odds.

Now this makes me sound pretty cynical, but this is the point. My romantic lack of cynicism is exactly the reason that, in recent years, I realised that I didn't want to get married. I am in love and that is between me and whoever I'm in love with. I don't have anything to prove.

Firstly, I don't have anything to prove to the church. I am not religious and it is merciful that the condition of my hymen is no longer pertinent to my suitability as a partner. The fetishisation of female virginity in the form of the white dress, which permeates even secular weddings though virginity itself is now present in ever fewer cases, was brought in by the Victorians and should have gone out with them. The stigma of being born out of wedlock is becoming out-moded, so I don't have to justify the existence of children. Secondly, I have nothing to prove to the state. Even with the ridiculous legal bullshit and bonuses still given the married, I fail to see how it is the government's business who I share my bed with. Both institutions also currently grant themselves the right to deem what kind of love, between consenting adults, is legitimate and which isn't. I want no part in such baseless, crass discrimination. Depending on how my life turns out, I may not have the choice.

I would be lying if I said that my feminism didn't in any way inform my stance against marriage. As I've pointed out elsewhere, gender roles have been shown to become more traditional once a couple marries. Domestic violence usually emerges after the honeymoon or during the first pregnancy, with stunned women feeling obligated to stay now that they are married and/or having a child together. Women are expected to identify themselves by their married status in a way that men are not. I'm still surprised by how many organisations refuse to acknowledge me as a Ms, as if a wedding somehow affects my right to buy plane tickets or try to win a bicycle. I am not a maiden or a crone, I am me and that is enough. Similarly, the practice of changing one's name is still common place. My mother didn't change hers, so I've never understood this one. Even though the notion of labelling property has receeded to the background for the most part (especially with fewer women promising to obey), there is still an unsavoury flavour to a woman signifying a change of identity upon signing a contract; I am no longer my father's girl, I am my husband's. Falling in love shouldn't be expected to completely alter the identity of either party, since if you fall in love with a person, you fall in love with them and not who you want to change them in to. In this day and age, it is still expected that a woman accept a new identity as Mrs while men carry on as Mr all their lives. For me, the label of "wife" carries too much baggage for me ever to feel comfortable in it.

I used the word contract above and I suppose that this is the bottom line about marriage and me. I don't need to sign a contract to prove that I love someone. I have the romantic and rather uncynical notion that love is enough to keep to people together. While it is shown that those who co-habit without marrying are more likely to break up, the happiness of those who marry is not taken into consideration, a socially smiled-upon "stable foundation" for children being deemed much more important than the happiness of any of the parties involved. It would mean more to me that my partner could easily leave and choose not to than stay, feeling that they are under contract to do so. It is expensive and stressful to divorce, and more likely to be acrimonious than a simple break-up, where there's still a chance we could remain friends.

I need to know that I'm in a relationship for the right reasons. If I married my partner, I could no longer trust myself that I was still with them out of love. The stress of this is more likely to break up my marriage than any other factor. I have nothing to prove to anyone. My partner knows I love them, the people who care about us know we're in love, so who else needs to know? I don't need the aproval of anyone else or a symbolic and lying white dress to let the world know I'm in love. No-one can feel the love I feel, no-one can really understand anybody else's relationship, so why do we pretend? It was a freeing feeling to look at the expected life progression, say "Why?", and realise that, for me, there was no good reason.

*I should point out that I'm talking Western attitudes to marriage here. I'm no anthropologist and wouldn't have much of a clue about the genealogy of marriage in the rest of the world.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Death of Satire

If I were writing a satirical or parodic feature, for the Onion or McSweeney's or something, I don't think I would have the imagination to come up with "On the issue of same-sex marriage, we have much to learn from the writers of ancient Rome". This sentence is a perfect storm of multifaceted stupidity by itself; it can only be overegging the pudding to note that the author of that sublime phrase is being quoted by a pundit (David Klinghoffer, author of How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative) whose thesis is that the general acceptance of same-sex marriage would lead to the general population of men being so enamoured of the sexual joys of other men that they would find themselves utterly uninterested in women. I simply cannot bring myself to mount any criticism of this argument. Just look at it.