Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Are women superhuman?

In my arrogant imagination, I tend to imagine my undergraduate college is a darker place these days. No more do my friends haunt its staircases and quads (well, a couple of them still do, including my college husband, but he hardly counts); no more the evening gatherings outside the dining hall trying desperately to put off late-night library trips, or having indoor curry picnics whilst watching the latest episode of Doctor Who. The Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness is now likely lived in by men of all people, its true members scattered to the four corners of the world: Beijing, Vienna, North London and South London. To be fair, I am talking about part of what is literally the oldest university in the English-speaking world, which does not usually approve of frivolous modern things like “change”, so I imagine that the rooms still look the same and the staff are still mostly recognisable and the cafeteria still serves the same Mystery Fish with Inappropriate Vegetables every Wednesday. But all the people who really made it awesome are now off living in the Real World, and it’s a depressing thing to think about.

There is one exception to my pessimism, however, and that’s the fact that in the year since the Staircase of Feminine Awesomeness disbanded and my presence in the Class of 2008 ended, my college now has its very own feminist discussion group, complete with Facebook presence! I am only tentatively familiar with the exact reasons for its creation (although I’m definitely familiar with the general ones!), but it’s heartening to know that I come from a place where these things are becoming more institutionalised. And having access to the Facebook group means I get another regular feed of interesting news from back home.

One thing which turned up a few days back and got me thinking was the Union’s first Women Forum, the theme for which was the latest tired rehash of that tired feminist debate, “Can women have it all?” Well-read people will remember that Princeton Academic Anne-Marie Slaughterdecided to “reignite” this in the Atlantic a few months back. The fact that this was being brought up again intrigued me, although sadly the events page itself is completely devoid of anybody taking apart how silly this question is as the basis for a gender debate, especially one that’s supposed to introduce freshers’ to women’s issues and campaigns at university.

Because, I’m sorry, but anybody who expends more than 5 seconds cogitating on the problem of “Can women have it all?” needs to have a serious little think about their life choices. If you don’t agree, try de-gendering it: “Can people have it all?” The answer is pretty obviously no. You cannot have an incredibly high-flying career and hang around with your family as much as you want and watch enough telly to be a hardcore pop culture reference guru and speak twenty languages and read all the super-important news sites in your bookmarks every day and play accordion in a punk ceilidh band every weekend and write a novel a month and go drinking with your friends every night and still find time to eat and sleep and wash and have soulful technicolour Naomi Wolf orgasms on a twice-daily basis. Believe me, if I could make the above life work, I would. But I can’t, and it’s not because I would have to learn the accordion and the other seventeen languages and live on the same continent as my family. It’s also got nothing to do with being lazy, compulsively negative about my own abilities or, most importantly, female. What restricts me most, alas, is the fundamental limits of human capacity!

If you need more evidence, just try playing the Sims- maybe you can get your Sim to the top of their career path, or to have indoor firework shows with 20 other people, or get abducted by aliens and have weird green babies, but if you try to do all of those things the game just falls apart. You end up getting exhausted, wetting yourself, crying and then refusing to do anything but sit on the sofa watching the same thirty seconds of cartoons on a loop whilst burglars steal all of the priceless art out of your house. And this is in a universe where hired help is affordable to all income levels! What hope do those of us who actually do have to do our own washing up have for living ultimately fulfilled lives?

Of course, this broad definition of “having it all” is not what Slaughter is referring to- to her, the big juggling act is between career and family, which is understandable as I suppose not many people make aspirations to accordion playing stardom one of their unattainable life goals. She talks about the difficulty of going to work in government for two years when her teenage sons were growing up in a different state, and how despite believing beforehand that her position, under Hilary Clinton, would be her dream job, after two years she realised that she was quite happy to give it up in order to be with her children. Ergo, women cannot have it all, despite the fact that an amorphous blob of older feminists told an amorphous blob of younger feminists that this would be the case. Now Slaughter reports that the amorphous blob of younger feminists are incredibly betrayed because apparently they have not played the Sims enough to know that “having it all” is ridiculous.

I’m actually being unfair on Slaughter herself. Buried deep inside this article (which is twelve hundred words long) is the analysis which I think really matters- that Slaughter decided to stop doing her “dream job” after two years and go back to her tenure at Princeton because that’s what actually made her happier. Turns out that when you make judgements about what your dream job would be before you’ve tried that job out, it is quite possible that when doing said job you might change your mind! Despite our collective inability as a species to process that prestige does not always equal fulfilment, the case that this article is predicated on is one in which a person realised that having a very prestigious job in politics was not actually what she wanted to do with her life. So she stopped.** End of story.

Except not end of story, for one simple reason: as a woman, and especially a woman in a prestigious position where gender imbalances still exist, Slaughter’s experiences are not just the stories of one person trying to live a balanced and fulfilling life based on the constraints of keeping the real world equivalents of those little hunger and hygiene and toilet meters high enough to not collapse or wet yourself at inappropriate times. Instead, they are a Tale of Woman, a view from the top that demonstrates to the rest of us lady-people that if this super successful, eloquent, fertile woman cannot find a balance between a family and an extremely demanding job, then the rest of us losers are highly unlikely to have a universally fulfilling life either. Therefore, critics of Slaughter’s piece, and some of her friends whose words she reports in the article, are able to believe that by giving up her job and then telling people about how it made her feel, Slaughter has betrayed the entirety of womankind- as a successful woman, her life experience should be constantly reinforcing a particular view of liberal feminist empowerment, and by living her life as her own rather than living up to this, feminism suffers.

But it’s just too demanding for us to think this way; as if every single action of our lives is keyed into this big woman empowerment scale whereby actions either advance or hold back a single feminist cause. For one thing, there isn’t just one scale. Slaughter’s tale of hard choices at the top is a totally relevant story, but it’s the story of one high-flying middle-aged white woman. At the time of writing, the New Statesman has just run a piece by Vagenda about what a waste of time “intersectionality” is (inexplicably their argument is that it makes feminism too elitist!) which is quite rightly causing an enormous stir on both my Twitter and my Tumblr. The unfortunate idea that feminism can be reduced to the struggle of white middle class educated women is probably the movement's greatest flaw, but it's one that every half decent feminist is trying to confront. However, even aside from the webs of discrimination that come with race and sexual orientation and ability, plenty of women live extremely demanding lives juggling work and family without any of the fulfilment which Slaughter can obtain from her jobs. Real people, unlike Sims, cannot hire a maid in a sexy outfit for 10 simoleons per hour to look after their children, and when they do have domestic workers they are also real women facing a very different economic reality from that of their employers. Whilst stories at the top should still be told, postulating on whether women can “have it all” at this level when so many women are striving for fulfilment with so much less seems a little blinkered, to say the least.

However, I think a wider problem is that framing these questions as if “Can women ever be optimally successful and fulfilled in their lives” as if that is a meaningful line of enquiry hides the actual gendered issues going on here. One thing that confused me immensely in the first page was the way in which Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravscik, is discussed. During her time in Washington, he was primarily responsible for caring for the children, for which Slaughter professes extreme gratitude and fortuitousness. I actually had to look the guy up on Wikipedia to see if he was actually the biological father of her children, as he’s never referred to as “my sons’ father”. He is, but the idea that he is willing to act as a primary caregiver is seen as a great, almost selfless act. This would be unimaginable the other way around- in fact, the male equivalent of “having it all” seems to be “being the provider”, which manages to conflate work and family into one single question of economic productivity, at the cost of having a larger presence in actual family life***. Over here in China, UNRISD has just released the first long-term gendered time use survey, which shows that women spend three times as much time as men in unpaid work, and almost half of their proportional working time in unpaid as opposed to paid labour; for men the ratio is about twenty percent. The fact that being a woman still comes with this bundle of “background labour” in almost all societies puts fulfilment that much further out of our grasp. It’s worth noting that almost all of this discrepancy is in housework, rather than childcare (largely because childcare timings across the population were pretty negligible, likely thanks to the one child policy!), which suggests that for so many women, having time to genuinely pursue fulfilment is still further out of reach than for their male equivalents.

I do feel that in terms of time use, and childcare, and what constitutes fulfilling family choices for men, women of my generation, and the generation who just sat through “Can women have it all” in freshers’ week at my university, do live in a different world. None of the men I consider my peers have particular gendered expectations about housework or childcare****, so I am optimistic that we are moving at least somewhat to a world where women can make their own choices about fulfilment without the fact of “being a woman” getting in the way. What does get in the way is the idea that our ideology could ever take away the fact that there will have to be choices, and they may be difficult. Spending time at university wondering whether your gender means you can do everything just detracts from the real point of university- figuring out what you want to do, trying to make it happen, and being able to learn from your mistakes without worrying that you are proving some grand point about the Limits of Woman.


*Not direct ones, alas, my college children never college-married (although one did real-world-marry so I guess that’s something?)

**Then she wrote a 12,000 word piece on it. Which sure puts my wordiness into perspective!

***Though this is of course a grand morally excellent sacrifice, rather than a state of affairs which should cause us to wonder if men can have it all. That question would just be silly!

****To be fair this is probably because I don’t consider sexists to be my peers, but I honestly don’t know guys who are openly like this at all. Incompetent men, yes. But actually just as many incompetent women too. It’s a whole new incompetent world out there! 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

On courage

So before I go any further, I want to apologise for not being a good enough feminist to have been keeping up with news in the world of Men’s Rights Activists. Whilst searching the internet for new inspiring pictures to put in my desktop background folder, I ended up stumbling onto the publicity leaflets for MRA haven “A Voice for Men”- infamous in the land of feminists for being some of the most awful examples of graphic design ever made (below are probably the two best)!

But very persuasive, as you can see! Anyway, it turns out that when I wrote last week about having “taken the red pill”, I didn’t realise that this had already been co-opted by every single vaguely nerdy person in the last 15 years MRAs to describe their own awakening regarding the feminist conspiracy to draft them into the military and force them to be crappy fathers. I feel like this could be a bonding moment between me and misogynists- like a real life version of that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” song, but about overcoming the zero-sum model of gender relations rather than just continuing to date a clearly unsuitable person.

It also turns out that whilst I was fussing about the State of the Planet Conference, over in the rest of Development-Land they were holding the first annual Day of the Girl Child, celebrating progress in expanding education and choices for girls and pointing out what needs to be done in the future. Somewhat fittingly, this day ended up coinciding with the week in which members of the Taliban in Pakistan decided to end the life of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose crime had been to be too “western minded” and to loudly advocate girl’s education in her region of Swat. The day itself focused on ending the problem of child marriage- it is estimated that 25,000 girls aged 11-16 get married every day, an event which almost always signals an end to their education and makes them much more likely to become an adolescent  maternal mortality statistic (maternal mortality is the leading cause of death for 15-19 year old women).

Whilst a lot of the dialogue from this day passed me by, I did get time to read one particular story from UN Women which resonated. It was about Fetura Mohammed, a girl from Ethiopia who decided, upon being informed by her father that he had arranged her marriage at aged 14, to use her knowledge of laws surrounding the issue and the help of local organisations, to go to the local court and fight it. After successfully winning both her legal case and the case for educating her and allowing her to make her own life choices to her father, she now combines continuing to go to school with working with the groups which provided her with awareness of her own rights, and helping to distribute that knowledge to others.

To contrast, when I was 14, I was writing weird derivative fantasy stories in order to attract the boy of my dreams, and worrying about whether or not my year 9 exam results were going to be better than my bestest frenemy. Due to the vagaries of the British schooling system, I made some subject choices which at the time I thought were going to affect the rest of my life (largely due to aforementioned frenemy trying to convince me that I’d never go to a good university without a GCSE in Spanish, to which I say se te escapo la tortuga, 矮个子), but which turned out to have been completely irrelevant to anything ever. The battles I thought I was fighting were 1) imaginary and 2) conducted against a different 14-year-old girl, whose actual level of control over my life chances was completely non-existent. For me, being 14 was just one particular year of being in an education system where everything was set up for me, a British girl living in the UK*, to succeed.
The first time somebody told me that, as a girl, I could not expect to do as well or better than the boys I was being tested against academically, was when I went to a university that has  a“finals gap”, where women consistently underperform compared to men in pretty much all subjects (stereotype threat much?). But it was never accompanied by any sanctions; there was no suggestion that it was therefore pointless to let girls into the university because they wouldn’t match the expectations of the boys**. At no point in my academic career has courage ever been an integral part of my experience or progression as a female. Ambition, perhaps, and a certain amount of bloody-mindedness, but never courage. No male relatives have ever beaten me for doing what I want to do, and no female ones have ever emotionally blackmailed me into “knowing my place”. My parents are as disinterested in my eventual marriage prospects as I am, at least for the foreseeable future. No international organisation has power to stop me from doing what I want to do, no gunman is going to break into my Beijing dormitory and try to end my western-minded life.

It’s an uncomfortable truth that for the vast majority of feminists like me- including, no doubt, myself- that this privilege is what lets us be feminists at all. Faced with constant threats against our lives (either in the literal sense or simply in the sense of being able to belong to our own families and communities in some sense), most of us would not be pontificating over subtexts of male entitlement in bar etiquette or whether the word “slut” should be reclaimed or avoided altogether- we’d spend most of the time trying to protect ourselves in the immediate sense, trying to figure out how to better our situations within the constraints of the situation we’re in. This is true of all of human progress, of course- being at the sharp end of social change always have to be the preserve of the courageous and bright few (and those with access to organisations like ActionAid in Ethiopia, which helped Mohammed understand her legal rights and bring a case against her father to prevent her child marriage), with the rest of us able to push the boundaries further from a position that’s already relatively secure.

I don’t mean to suggest that the big problems faced by North Americans and Western European women are at all trivial (indeed, in a few cases, they look pretty similar to those faced in Taliban-influenced areas of Pakistan or Ethiopia, and we’d do well not to forget that). Sexual assault and domestic violence aren’t trivial. The wage gap is not trivial, particularly given how many families and children are supported by women alone***, and particularly given how it becomes exacerbated when race is taken into consideration. The assumption that women should raise children without society considering it a significant, valued labour undertaking (because raising children is something women can do naturally!) is not trivial. The way in which women are encourage to perceive our own bodies and the time and money we’re expected to spend “fixing” them is not trivial. The thousands of remarks catalogued on “Everyday Sexism” might seem trivial when taken individually, but what they add up to certainly is not. The weird guy who leered at me and called me “honey” when he was trying to get past me at the bar on Tuesday night was trivial, but he exists on a sliding scale of male entitlement which gets non-trivial pretty quickly. Arguing that men are discriminated against because they could be drafted to fight (even though they haven’t been in the US since the 1970s and even longer in the UK) is a bit trivial, sorry MRAs.

What these things are not, with the big exception of sexual violence, is individually threatening.**** Wage gaps, childcare expectations, conversations with weird men that we’re socialised to be too polite to escape from, enforced beauty regimes, institutionalised gender equality in exams: all of these are issues which grind us down rather than terrifying us into submission. And then we are shown that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls are shot for going to secondary school, or trapped into marriages with much older men, and the fact that we don’t have that particular problem seems to make frustration with our own gendered lives a bit ungrateful. This idea particularly tends to pervade conversations I have about gender equality in China- now that women can get educated and find good jobs and aren’t physically crippled as girls and then shipped off to live under a mother-in-law at age 11, surely it’s time to stop worrying? It’s enough to have to worry about finding a decent husband (before age 27, remember!) and getting promoted beyond a certain point, and having fair enough skin and beautiful hair, and of course overcoming the various moments of stupidity that are just so female- we can’t even seem to cross the road without getting run over and let’s not even try doing economic calculations- without having to also worry about feminism. Plus, feminism scares men away. There's only so much any person can do.

So how the hell do we contextualise all of this- our lives, our gendered problems, our non-gendered problems, other women’s problems, the world’s problems- without going completely insane? Especially since we’re living in the first era (imperialism definitely does not count) where globalisation seems to demand that we do so. The privileged educated white feminist response- even when faced with diverse voices within their own countries, let alone having to contend with those from outside- is too often to either retreat into privileged educated white female problems (like the “right” to not sit at home being looked after by wealthy men, which has never been a representative lifestyle for most of the world’s women!) or, less often, to get very worried about issues like child marriage or female genital mutilation or the position of women in Islam which we don’t actually have any insight into whatsoever, and to impose our rather irrelevant thoughts onto those debates. I'm not going to be an apologist for cultural relativism or anything like that, because I've only ever seen that used to deny women personhood based on an accident of geography, and I frankly think it’s an insult to suggest that there is such a thing as a culture which cannot secure universal human rights. But what those big, scary debates need- and have- is the courageous voices of girls and women who actually contend with these issues to advocate and to be heard.

We privileged few have two safer but far more difficult tasks. One, to keep listening to what is going on all over the world- listening, not speaking, and certainly not talking over! And two, to keep moving forward ourselves on issues which demand the patience of us all rather than the courage of a few. It might just be the fact that I’ve started paying more attention since I began this blog, but I feel like the dialogue about feminism and gender issues in the UK and the US is becoming more mainstream once again. That’s great, but it’s also reaching an audience of both men and women who have been privileged throughout their lives, who can see what is going on elsewhere, and who conclude that the situation we face now is trivial and natural. Most young girls in the UK grow up like me, completely unaware and indifferent to gender issues until pretty late in their childhoods. It’s speculated- by Gloria Steinem, for example- that maybe there is a different “radicalisation” lifecycle for women, that we begin conservative and only start to understand what has been taken from us later on in our lives, that the counterpart to an “angry young man” is actually an “angry old woman” and we shouldn’t worry too much about how non-radical our youth are. Perhaps that’s true, but if so it means women won’t fight for change until it’s too late for them as individuals. Better, perhaps, to start now, with what we know- because for now at least, there’s always a next step.

*And for a while before that, Australia, but the same point holds.

** Although I’ve no doubt that there is plenty of institutionalised sexism in an admissions procedure that overwhelmingly still depends on whether one or two old white men warm to you in twenty minutes

***This is feminism’s fault for being so damn discriminatory against rights for fathers, of course! Misandry <3

**** For some women that’s probably an eyebrow-raisingly big exception to make, sorry about that. Living in China, where I can go home alone at any time of the night without any fear whatsoever (and before then in Oxford which was pretty much the same deal) means I’m absurdly privileged in this respect.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Thinking like a feminist

A couple of weeks ago, I got rather angry. This is not in itself a gripping news event, both because I am a relatively uninteresting young woman of no particular importance to the rest of the world and because I spend a significant amount of my life getting rather angry about things. I was an easily enraged person long before I identified as a feminist, and I hope to be one long after the patriarchy comes crashing down around our heads and feminist identification is no longer necessary (which is going to happen any day now, right?) However, this was the first time that getting angry led to my getting to speak at a conference right after the UN Deputy Secretary General, so in the context of my life it was a relatively important event.

What happened was, my school, who are not known for giving significant notice of important events at the best of times, decided to e-mail my class during the week when we were all busy working to a thesis deadline, asking for proposals for a two minute slot talking about China’s development in Colombia’s State of the Planet conference (there are various school related reasons about why this was a Thing which are very dull and irrelevant). The evening before the deadline- which just so happened to be a Saturday evening, just to add insult to injury- S. told me that he was preparing a proposal of majestic proportions. After reminding myself of what he was actually talking about (thesis deadlines are pretty all-consuming sometimes!), some remarks on bad timing and the importance of not being lame on a Saturday night ensued; then I jokingly suggested that, As A Feminist, I should write one about “teh Wimminz” to defeat his manly well thought out “triple bottom line” approach.

To which he told me that, if I wanted women’s concerns to be included in the Sustainable Development Goals, I could always write a paragraph that he could put in “in one form or another”, but he didn’t really see how I’d be able to write a whole proposal from my own perspective.* Development is about people, after all, not women. Needless to say (it is what I started the post with after all), this did not go down well in the Land of Adrienne. What followed was an incredibly lame Saturday evening of coffee, feminist inspired socially based sustainable development goals and a monologue of “I’ll show that twatbag, girly paragraph in his manly proposal is it, why don’t we see which other manly places I can stick this feminist paragraph, bloody wanking tosspot” &c. &c. By the end, I was too caffeinated and rage-addled to sleep and ended up sinking into a vague stupor of feminist developmental rage until the morning.

Upon rousing, I had another look and it turned out that my anger-induced views on sustainable development goals were actually not too bad, although to be fair they were nothing particularly groundbreaking either. I submitted and through various- largely luck-based- mechanisms, ended up landing the slot. Then, ironically, I ended up having to cut the thing down so heavily to fit into the time slot that I almost ended up losing the explicit references to gender-related targets entirely. As it is, to the casual observer, my feminism kind of does look like a paragraph in the middle of someone else’s socialist idealism. A fitting end to a misinterpreted joke, perhaps.

Except that’s not the right distinction. The ten seconds of my two minute speech where I explicitly make reference to breaking down stereotypes about female leadership in China through international goals about female representation do not represent my feminism hanging out in the middle of a bunch of totally objective other stuff about social development in general. The reason all of that other stuff is in there, is also because I’m a feminist. I could have just as easily written an hour long speech about the same subject, still from a feminist perspective, and it would have contained the same proportion of specifically gendered stuff. That’s why it’s so infuriating for people to mistake “being a feminist” for “having a narrow focus”- even beyond the fact that women are 50% of the human race, and therefore talking about women ought to cover half the relevant things about humankind, which is also about as much as you can cover by using “people” as a proxy for “men”.

No, it’s more than that. The day I signed up for my feminist license (totally a thing), I didn’t stand there and swear an oath that the only thing I would ever talk, write or think about from that day forth would directly involve uteruses, boobs, bras, Judy Blume, bell hooks, yoga, skimmed milk or a combination of the above. I just looked one final time at how the majority of the world likes to generalise from “men” to “people”, and to use the word “girly” like it’s some sort of degrading insult… and I decided to stop framing things that way. All of the things. Given a bit of knowledge on the subject, I could literally talk about everything from breakfast cereal to cartography to East Timorese politics using this lens- some of it would come out looking the same as if I’d framed it using the patriarchy, of course, but I would still be applying feminism to it and I wouldn’t have to just refer to women in order to do it. To bring out a ridiculously outdated and overused move reference, the day I started being a feminist was the day I took the red pill**. Now I am outside the Man-Matrix, looking in, and let me tell you it’s an interesting view.

Of course, putting this way makes the whole thing sound a bit edgier and more awesome than it is. Once one has taken the step- conscious or otherwise- to not look at things from a patriarchal perspective, there’s a sense of incredible freedom, but it comes at the price of nobody back in the Man-Matrix really understanding where you’re coming from any more. It’s particularly prevalent when talking about actual “women’s issues” like birth control and abortion, where discussions are too often characterised as feminists vs. other people (they’re not). Most of my information about this comes through the lens of listening to other people talk about US politics, which I have no more than a general interest in, but when blustering Tory moron Jeremy Hunt decided to weigh in on UK abortion law a few days ago, I had my feminist fury activated with the stupidity of the debate. How can they be talking about survival ages when the entire point is about not forcing human beings to use their bodies to support the lives of other organisms! And yet perhaps, without being outside the Man-Matrix, it really is just accepted that some humans will have to do this and some will not and the way we draw that distinction is of no interest to society. It’s what my old Philosophy tutor used to refer to as the War of Incredulous Glances- how can we get anywhere near a political debate when it’s not being held anywhere near our own terms?

So, are feminists really doomed to be the human equivalent of the 52 Hz whale, wandering the earth singing our high pitched lady songs whilst the rest of the whales hang out in different registers? Women and feminine people have been banging on about our own value and rights as more than just ornamentation for centuries, in one way or another and there’s been significant scholarship on the issue for a rather long time too; yet here we still are, being asked to be paragraphs in the books of men. I guess the only way forward is to keep demonstrating that we are talking about it. I’ve no great love for Australia’s Julia Gillard (because, did you know, it’s possible for different people to see things through a feminist lens and come to different political conclusions, another thing the rest of the world seems to struggle with at times- although maybe it’s just because it’s more entertaining to view disagreements between feminists as bitchy irrelevant catfights!), but like many women I was incredibly excited by her sustained attack on the misogyny of Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, simply because it forced a patriarchal institution to at least listen to a feminist criticism of a man’s*** behaviour in a realm which isn’t traditionally “female”. Because maybe then we teach people that feminism is relevant to that realm, and we can actually move on to talking about the real issues as a society, rather than whether or not women should just shut up and move back to the kitchen.

(Transcript here)

 It’s imperfect, of course. For every person who goes “wow that was an inspiring instance of behaviour”, there’s another one going “haha, stupid woman” and yet another going “but she opposes gay marriage and literally cut benefits to single parent families on the same day as this happened, which negates all value of this speech”. If you’re reading this at the time of writing and really want to appreciate how enormously diverse (and largely stupid) reactions to feminism are, try looking at the #sorryfeminists hashtag on Twitter- something which started as an in-joke mocking stereotypes about feminism which has now been co-opted to perpetuate stereotypes about feminism, mock feminists from an MRA perspective, give non-feminist women a space to vent vague confusion about feminism and give the occasional wit the space to make a blowjob joke to an unreceptive audience. To be fair, it was a vague joke to start with, but the speed and aplomb with which the majority of people have completely missed the point is pretty depressing from this standpoint. Especially talking over the internet, where people can express quickly and rudely about their point-missing, knowing that the only way forward is to talk to those who literally don’t have the mindset to interpret what you’re saying in the way you mean it is an extremely depressing thought.

Still, we keep going, largely because we all kind of have to. The point of the Matrix is that you don’t get to plug back in- that bad guy who tried to ended up getting horribly electrocuted, remember?- and, in the same way, once you start thinking about things from a feminist perspective, I don’t think it’s possible to ever go back to not caring (unless it really is about breakfast cereal in which case yeah I’m pretty sure I think about that in the same way as everybody else.) Tomorrow, I’ll give a feminist speech about sustainable development that nobody will really know is feminist, because it’s really not possible for me to write any other kind of speech without regarding it as an exercise in fiction. I’m sure plenty of people in the audience will automatically disagree with my being too idealistic, too socially focused, too uninterested in easily measured goals. That’s OK, they don’t understand why it’s important to me. Maybe one day they will.

(Want to watch me take Columbia University by storm? Go to on October 11 and watch the live webcast at about 9.40am New York Time. That’s 9.40pm Beijing time, 2.40pm British Summer time. If you live somewhere else, you do the maths!

*I’m being a bit disingenuous, to be fair- the implication was that it would be impossible to write a comprehensive two-minute speech about the topic from a feminist perspective, rather than that I would be incapable of doing it. It’s still wrong, of course, but not actually a personal insult.

**It’s red because menstruation. Really.

*** Though if Australia’s parliamentary behaviour is anything like the UK’s, it should more strictly be “institution’s”. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Useful Chinese for hopeless romantics

So it’s October already. Leaves are changing, Beijing is shifting all too quickly from “revoltingly humid sticky season” to “painfully dry frostbite season”, and consumer havens all over the western world are gearing up for Halloween and then (or, in the UK these days, simultaneously) for Christmas.* But not in China! Here, we’ve just had two of the big three autumn/winter holidays smushed into a compact two day package- it’s an occupational hazard when your country reckons some of its holidays by the lunar calendar and some by the Gregorian- and with it, a week’s holiday for pretty much everybody in the country. Despite having only been back at university for three weeks, my entire class were fully in need of this break, myself included.

However, where the rest of my acquaintance were off to do terribly uninspiring things like visit their faraway loved ones or hang out on tropical islands or cycle through the desert, I was off to prove my extraordinary strength and sporting prowess and general Waterbender street cred in my first ever dragon boat race, down near Shanghai. Sure, I’d only taken up dragon boat racing three weeks earlier, but that was not going to stop me from paddling to victory in the Wujiang Rural Business Bank Cup! As it transpired, pitting Beijing’s international dragon boat team (heavily padded out by a group of hilariously immature 18-year-olds from a local university) against several groups of tall, muscular, men-only university crews meant that the only victories we won were moral ones, and there were a couple of near-death experiences with the steering which left me missing the days of eights rowing, where it is nearly impossible for a boat to twist 90 degrees within ten strokes and plough through all of the adjacent lanes** before grinding to a halt beside an island full of local dignitaries.

Things off-water were equally hilarious and a little less fraught with danger. As I mentioned, I’d only been paddling with this crew for about three weeks but luckily I had happened across what must be China’s most welcoming and entertaining dragon boat team, so I got to skip the usual several week process of standing on the edge being awkward and weird and go straight to imposing my awkward weirdness directly onto others. Much of the “banter” (I know, sorry) of the weekend revolved around H., our male boat club captain and one particular female member of our team, M., whose entire relationship apparently consists of finding ways to abuse each other, and particularly the former’s attempt to find a “shuaige” (帅哥,fittie) or preferably a “zhangfu” (丈夫,husband) for the latter. This desire was then extended to the rest of the single women on our team, and led to various jokes about searching the hotel we were sharing with various other teams in search of marriageable shuaiges to proposition.

Whilst outside the hotel, the main effect of the marriage joke was H. marching up to various teams in whom M. may or may not have expressed a vague interest, saying “that foreign woman there finds you very attractive”, and then getting the whole team over to take photos or swap shirts (an endeavour with interesting implications for women in a public place in China) or generally stand around and admire the foreigners. Given that we were already the star attraction of the races- never mind who was actually winning the darn things, hilariously slow foreigners are here!- this involved a lot of reserved and largely gender neutral curiosity from the propositioned teams; to China’s credit, whilst it has its fair share of creepy entitled men of all ages, they are outnumbered at the university level by a lot of shy and well-intentioned young guys.

I learned several things from this. One, that it’s probably quite telling that none of our largely bilingual team were able to translate the word “subtle” from English to Chinese in order to explain why marching up to strangers and going “please come and take pictures with that admiring foreigner” might be slightly strange. Two is that H. has terrible taste in Chinese men, and kept invariably bringing over the wrong ones. Three, a Beijing XL shirt is significantly bigger than a Jiangsu XL, and the latter looks less good on me than it did on the six-foot tall ripped man who gave it to me. Most interesting, however, is four, which came across through various comments throughout the weekend: even when finding your future husband amongst the dragon boating undergraduates of south China is a joke, it should also be a mubiao.

Mubiao (目标) is the Chinese word for “target”, both in the literal sense of a thing you might shoot arrows at, and also in the sense of a life goal. It literally means “thing you have your eye on”. As a twenty-three year old expatriated masters’ student, my personal mubiaos, in order of importance, can be summarised as follows:

1)      Be awesome
2)      Learn more Chinese
3)      Get strong enough to crush a human skull with my bare hands***
4)      Get a decent degree

As a female existing in China, however, I am missing that most important mubiao of all- the importance, magnified by my advanced age and insistence on pursuing advanced education, of finding a sexy and appropriate life partner before I join the ranks of one of China’s most interesting and, on the surface, paradoxical phenomena: the shengnv**** (剩女) or “leftover women”.

The paradox is, of course, that in a country with about 116 male births to every 100 (thanks, sex selective abortion!), where there are about 24 million men of marriageable age who literally do not have an equivalent woman, there are a growing number of successful urban women who have not settled down with a before their, uh, “expiry date”- which can be either 27 or 30 or even 25 depending on who you ask. The societal view of this is of course that these women must have in some way priced themselves out of the market and therefore been passed over by men, even those who will also otherwise be facing permanent single life- the “leftover” concept. There’s societal evidence of this, for example in the Chinese equivalent of that most horrible dating show, “Take Me Out” (although I literally cannot imagine anything worse from either a gender or an entertainment perspective than the British version of Take Me Out, so the Chinese one surely must be a step up), there’s also physical evidence of the “plight” of Shengnv in unlikely places, like the enormous outdoor dating agency that is Shanghai People’s Park. I found myself there a couple of days after racing, and here’s what it looks like:

First I found a few personals...

Then I found all these stalls of the things...
Then I found this enormous tunnel full of them!
And here's what they all look like.
As you can just about see on the last picture, the character 女,which denotes woman, is on about 95% of these posters- the others are , which means STRONG AGRICULTURAL LABOUR or, as we like to call them, “men”. I made the mistake of stopping in front of one of the male posters for thirty seconds to see how good my personal ad Chinese is (answer: not too bad!) and was immediately accosted by a woman trying to get me to also “make an introduction”, although whether this meant to get introduced to the handsome 30-something divorcee whose poster I was trying to translate or to generally try my luck getting matched, I don’t know. In some of the more informal corners of the pseudo-meat market, there are paper bags being watched over by hopeful looking elderly women who are apparently trying to advertise their hopeless granddaughters. Pretty much all of the adverts show years of birth as 1982 or earlier, making these all 30-something women looking for love with men of approximately the same age, whilst the few men are apparently being matched up with hapless 23-year-old foreign women trying to find blog material.

Poor Shengnvs! Trapped alone in a society which is even more attached to gender roles than the UK or other western countries, where their qualifications and high-paying jobs and general life success has also translated into a life of loneliness, because what man would ever choose to spend his life with a woman who is his superior? They got their mubiao wrong, believed in gender neutral success when they should have been women attracting men, and now they will pay the price. One of the staff on my program once berated me for not having secured a mate before coming to get a graduate degree, telling me “there are three types of people in this world: men, women and female doctors.” A lot of articles about Shengnv blame “hypergamy”- the idea that women need to marry up in China, perhaps even more so than in most cultures. So the most successful men in China marry slightly less successful women, and the most successful women have no one to go to and thus have no choice but to remain unwed and unhappy.

That doesn’t seem to be the whole story, however. The hopeful grandmas in the park and the walls of hundreds of personal adverts tell one story, but they hardly tell the story of seven million women. In a lot of cases, it seems like the implications of being passively “left over” are rather misleading- many of China’s successful women are also defining their own destiny when it comes to love, and the message is that if there isn’t a suitable man, why settle?

Take, for example, this song- actually identified in the title as “by Shengnvs”, good word reclamation there dudes- in which the message is “if you do not have a car or a flat (like I do), you are a girly-man and unworthy of the love of beautiful women (like me).” That’s a really strong message and it’s certainly not passive. Or the quote from Chinese author and Cosmopolitan writer, Wu Di in this article: "Those who can bear the shortcomings and sufferings of men will get married. Those not, single." The problem here doesn’t look like hypergamy, it looks like a simple balancing of an equation: men need to offer more material possessions in order to be masculine and worthy enough to marry attractive and materially successful women. It is implausible that just being a pleasant and interesting person who is attractive to your potential life partner and wants roughly the same things from the future might be enough to build a marriage around- we must also balance Sexy and Successful and Manly/Womanly (or, let’s be honest, Manly/Girly to the kind of people who make these equations) and Does My Mother Like You.

It sounds empowering, in a way. It’s nice to know that the dream of achieving your gender neutral mubiao is out there, being lived by Chinese women who then go home and put on the nice clothes they bought with their own money and make internet videos for nobody’s entertainment but their own. But it also sounds like an exhausting calculation, especially for the many women for whom material success does start to ring hollow. Suddenly, the act of searching for somebody you love becomes some sort of weird Mating Bingo- it’s no longer just that men don’t want successful wives, it’s that you as a woman have failed if you cannot find an unsuccessful husband. No, I don’t care if you want to spend every minute of every day with him having sex and doing Sudoku, if his job title doesn’t sound as good as yours you shouldn’t be settling. In the end we just empower women to reinforce the same stereotypes about relationship power distributions that have kept them on the back foot for centuries.

So, maybe this is one of those moments where we go “oh, so that’s just how gender relationships should be”! But that doesn’t seem like the right conclusion. Perhaps it is just my age, or perhaps I am too inexperienced to make such judgements,***** but two Venn diagrams spring to mind. One is the Venn diagram of “absurdly satisfied coupley people who give me hope for humanity” and “coupley people I know who have carefully balanced their individual material and sexual assets in making a relationship commitment”. That one has no overlap whatsoever. The second is “people I know with flats and cars” and “people I have idly considered spending the rest of my life with”, also with a complete lack of overlap- which is frankly the least of my problems. Generalising about the human condition from the experiences of millions of Chinese is one thing, but I’ll stick with my friends on this one. Self-improvement can be a mubiao, but let’s keep love as just A Thing.

(NOTE OF IMPORTANCE: Yeah so I screwed up quite badly on timing this week, even compared to the late schedule I set myself. I'm all ready to go for this Wednesday though so fear not!)


*If you think I missed something out there, I point you firmly to the fact that I am English, and Thanksgiving does not exist in my world. Deal with it.

**We were saved from actual carnage by the fact that we were so slow that all the neighbouring crews were 
already a boat length ahead of us.

***Or, perhaps also with other body parts. I’m thinking of two in particular.

**** “v” in pinyin, the standard Romanisation system for mainland Chinese, is actually pronounced “ü”- it was originally written with the umlaut as well but as “v” is the only English alphabet letter not otherwise used in pinyin, the rise of typed Chinese on American keyboards has made this a logical substitution.

***** And perhaps I have spent too  much time today helping a friend of a friend with her UCAS Maths personal statement, hence the following example…