Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘sexism’

Is International Women’s Day really necessary?

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. This is an annual event and every year there are people who ask, is it really necessary? Isn’t it sexist to have a day dedicated solely to women? Women have equality, what more do they want? So this year I want to explain why I believe that International Women’s Day is not just necessary but essential.

We live in a world where women perform 66% of the world’s work and produce 50% of its food, but earn only 10% of its income and own 1% of its property. This is easy to dismiss as being a problem that’s only relevant to developing countries where manual labour is far more common, but the fact is that even in the UK women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Women are also a rare sight in boardrooms and on the benches of Parliament. We live in a world where the vast majority of lawmakers are male and frequently pass laws restricting the rights a woman has over her own body.

In recent years global awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM – also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting) has increased. This is not a procedure akin to male circumcision, which involves the removal of the foreskin only. FGM involves the removal of part or all of female external genitalia, often without anaesthesia and without any medical need. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of a medical condition that would require a young girl to have her clitoris or labia cut away, or her vagina stitched closed, without anaesthesia or pain relief but this is often the reality. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 140 million women and girls worldwide have suffered FGM. Again, this is easy to dismiss as an issue that only exists elsewhere but it’s estimated that even in the UK 20,000 girls are at risk of FGM every year.

Everywhere we turn, women are objectified and treated as men’s property and sexual playthings. WHO figures show that over a third (35.6%) of women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. In some places girls are more likely to be raped than they are to attend school. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that in England and Wales an average of 85,000 women are raped every year while over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted. This is merely the tip of the iceberg as it is believed that there are many cases which are never reported. The Everyday Sexism project has exposed the frighteningly commonplace harassment that women and girls in the UK (there are now Everyday Sexism projects in other countries too) suffer on a daily basis. It makes sobering reading, as does the survey carried out in 2013 by Girl Guiding UK. Shocking statistics from this survey include the fact that 60% of females aged 11-21 have had comments about their appearance shouted at them in school and 62% have been shouted at or whistled at in the street. Even worse, “70 per cent of girls aged 13 and over report more intrusive forms of sexual harassment at school or college, including: sexual jokes or taunts (51 per cent), seeing images of girls or women that made them uncomfortable (39 per cent), unwanted sexual attention (28 per cent) and unwanted touching (28 per cent)”.

It’s not just sexual harassment, assault and rape that women face. Research carried out by the charity Women’s Aid concluded that in the UK an average of 2 women per week are killed by their current or former male partner. According to data gathered by @CountDeadWomen (a valuable and eye-opening project on Twitter) 22 UK women were killed through suspected male violence in the first two months of 2014 (that’s roughly one woman killed every 2.5 days).

I’m not denying that men suffer sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and harassment. Of course they do and these incidents are just as unacceptable as those where women are the victims, but these cases are a very small proportion of the overall figures. Personally I have suffered rape, sexual assault, abuse at the hands of a boyfriend and harassment as I go about my daily life. I don’t want this to be my daughter’s experience; I don’t want her or my son to grow up in a society where the oppression, abuse, harassment and violence that women suffer is so pervasive that to some people it is not only the norm but it is becoming invisible.

(In anticipation of the inevitable comments, yes there is an International Men’s Day; it’s on November 19th. Now read this post again and ask yourself why that was the first thing you thought worthy of a comment).

Boys and girls, come out to play…

My daughter is 4 years old and has just started school. She likes her uniform and school bookbag but she absolutely adores her backpack, snack pot and water bottle. They’re all Spiderman, you see, and she really likes Spiderman (she’s pretty keen on Batman too but there weren’t any Batman bags at the shops!).

This morning, instead of gleefully putting on her bag she was subdued. On the way to school she confided that one of her classmates had told her she shouldn’t have Spiderman things because she’s a girl, and Spiderman is only for boys. Outwardly I was cheerful and reassured her, explaining that Spiderman is for everyone and that she is allowed to like whatever she wants. But inside my heart was breaking for her.

My daughter doesn’t fit the ‘little girl’ stereotype. She likes pink but only as much as every other colour; she has no interest in princesses but loves pirates; her favourite CBeebies programme is Octonauts. She likes dinosaurs and cars as well as dolls and Sylvanian families. She is her own person and until now no-one had ever told her that she couldn’t like something because she’s a girl.

Children are bombarded with stereotypes via shops, adverts and television. Thanks to the Let Toys Be Toys campaign many big retailers are changing the way they display toys, removing their “boys” and “girls” signs (although often the pink and blue colour coding remain). But go into any shop that stocks children’s clothing – one section contains mostly pink and pastels, sparkles, princesses and teddies while the other contains bold colours, cars, spaceships and superheroes. I was recently admonished by a cashier at Tesco for buying Batman socks for my daughter; that’s how pervasive this nonsense has become.

It is our job as parents to gently encourage our children to think outside the colour coded boxes. A child should be free to explore and play with whatever kind of toy they like, instead of toys that they think they should like.

We need to teach children to play and explore the world around them, to be active, curious, kind and nurturing. We need to let them pursue their interests and encourage them to be confident in who they are and the choices they make. Restricting a child’s play because of the mistaken belief that some toys are only for one gender, or telling a child that their interests and passions are wrong or inappropriate because of their gender, is short-sighted and nonsensical.

My daughter likes Spiderman, my son likes dolls. That’s absolutely fine and I will continue to correct anyone with the temerity to tell my children otherwise.

Why men are dumb and women are drudges

I’d hate to be an advertising executive. You have 30 seconds to make your product sound appealing, make it memorable and make it sound like it’s worth buying. And you have to do this without offending too many people.

It’s that last bit that so many advertisers seem to fall down on. In particular it seems difficult for advertisers to make a tv advert that isn’t sexist in some way, shape or form. Of course there are some  – I don’t think I’ve seen a sexist toothpaste advert, for example. Or a sexist advert for denture adhesive. But a lot of tv adverts for alcohol, deodorant, perfume and household products (among other things) are irritatingly sexist. A lot of them are obviously sexist against women and of course that pisses me off. But more frequently now these days there are adverts are sexist against men and there are even those that manage to alienate both sexes. That’s quite an achievement!

Example #1. An advert for a high street chemist. An obviously unwell woman is stumbling along, laden with heavy shopping. She meets friends and informs them that her male partner is in bed with a cold, poor lamb, while she’s just going about everyday business.

Example #2. Adverts for supermarkets, especially at Christmas. The woman is seen doing everything (shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children etc) while the man watches football, drinks in the pub or plays computer games.

Example #3. An advert for an oven cleaner. Features a confused looking man and the tagline is something like “So easy even a man can do it”.

Example #4. Advert for a male deodorant popular with teenage boys. Typically involves a male deemed unattractive until he sprays himself with the magic stinky stuff, at which point he becomes irresistible to the (often scantily-clad) women in the vicinity.

There are many more examples of course, these are merely the first few that come to mind. I know that a lot of people may say that they’re just adverts, they reflect how life is for a lot of people (especially in relation to the supermarket ads) and that they’re harmless. But are they really? When you look at these adverts together the message that comes across is “Women are drudges/only valued if wearing a string bikini” and “Men are dumb/incapable of housework/unable to attract women unless they smell like a 14 year old’s PE kit”. How is this helpful to either gender?

Even my 3 year old has noticed. She got very irate at the supermarket adverts over Christmas, asking why the daddy wasn’t doing anything, daddies can cook and tidy and look after children too. But then she sees her parents sharing the housework and childcare and as yet has no idea that there are stereotypical male and female roles.

I’m not being critical of anyone for whom these adverts reflect reality, btw. But in the 21st century when women are still slowly clawing their way towards equality and more men are becoming stay-at-home parents, why do advertising companies insist on promoting such sexist twaddle? Why encourage our daughters to grow up thinking that their main value lies in how good they look in a bikini or how well they can cook a roast dinner? Why encourage our sons to think that men should be lazy and unable to take care of themselves, their homes and their children?

I want to see adverts that don’t feature a dumb dad’ or ‘lazy male partner’. I want to see adverts that don’t use gratuitous shots of half-naked women to sell their product, or suggest that only women can do housework. I want to see adverts that don’t use lazy, outdated stereotypes and that actually reflect modern life instead of 1950s claptrap.

And don’t get me started on adverts for children’s products – I shall save that rant for another day. 😉

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