Wednesday, December 20, 2006

‘One is not born a woman, but becomes one’

With a giant feeling of unease sitting on my shoulder for the last week or so, I’ve finally managed to drum up whatever I needed to post. In the way that these things usually happen, this feeling has been constructed brick by brick. It started with the ridiculous Christopher Hitchens article in Vanity Fair, accusing women of not having a sense of humour. Poor sap, I thought, as I veered wilding between tolerant amusement and mild indignation. Men like him have to sustain themselves on some poorly constructed stereotypes.

Then, on Batul’s blog, I read about a curious math problem. The illustrious writers of our textbooks see no problem in perpetuating such stereotypes as the Hitchens of the world are proud to create. What, after all, are they doing wrong? Women do earn less than men for at least an equal amount of work done. So what could be wrong in letting children who are learning algebra, also learn these facts of life that surely cannot be harder than the sums they are set?

My son at three, used to love having his nails painted. Then someone – male or female – in his kindergarten must have sniggered. The painting of nails stopped. One day, recently, he said, ‘girls can’t do that.’ I’ve forgotten what it was he thought girls couldn’t do, but I speedily disillusioned him.

More than fifty years after Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” parents, teachers, writers of both textbooks and the more enjoyable ones that we hope children will read, are full of precisely the kind of constructions of gender identities that the women’s movement has worked so hard to avoid or eliminate.

Take Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer for instance. Peter Fortune is a daydreamer who inhabits the minds of such diverse creatures as cats, little babies and ‘grown-ups’. All well and good. But is it too much to ask that McEwan write about a family where the wife does not necessarily take on her husband’s name after marriage? (Unless she was already a Fortune before she married her husband, and that throws up some nicely gruesome possibilities). Or that everyone, even the minor characters, not all be white, middle class families with not a whisper of other skin colours or communities?

I wonder what people who write for children think they are doing. Do they assume that if they do not talk about some things, they will go away? Or do they unconsciously hope to create a picture of a world they hope their children will inhabit: one of easily resolved conflicts, uniform in its assumptions and peopled by characters just like themselves?

This is not a digression. It has everything to do with the way children grow up to become the kind of men and women they do become.

Years ago, when I was in school, I met a young teacher with some books in her hand. I turned my head to read the titles, and saw some book that said Feminism and… something or the other. I was twelve then, so I try hard to forgive myself the sneer with which I said, “So you’re a feminist.”

I said it with a little pause before the F word, to emphasise the horror of all that the word implied.

And I can never be grateful enough for the way she said, quite mildly, “Of course. I think any woman in her right mind would be a feminist.”


On Monday, 16-year-old Tapasi Malik was raped and burnt alive in Singur.(link via Blogbharti) It’s hard to draw a clear line from our childhoods to the day when, as adults, we can commit such crimes against women. I don’t know if anyone else has this hanging up on their walls, but this might be the time to reproduce it here:

Because woman's work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and we're the first to get fired and what we look like is more important than what we do and if we get raped it's our fault and if we get beaten we must have provoked it and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos and if we don't we're frigid and if we love women it's because we can't get a "real" man and if we ask our doctor too many questions we're neurotic and/or pushy and if we expect childcare we're selfish and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and "unfeminine" and if we don't we're typical weak females and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man and if we don't we're unnatural and because we still can't get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion and...for lots and lots of other reasons we are part of the women's liberation movement.


Batul said...

Certainly needs to be up on every wall. Am part of the women's liberation movement. And don't even get me started on name changing after marriage.

Yves said...

Yes, it is too much to ask that an author obeys someone else's standards of political correctness. The purpose of fiction and any other art is not to perpetuate any form of stereotypes including the feminist one!

Space Bar said...

yves: certainly, an author need obey nobody's dictates or standards of PC; but an author, especially one writing for children, need not assume that there's some world that already exists in the child's mind that miraculously avoids the conflicts of the world around them.

I found it strange that an author like Ian Mcewan, who otherwise finds the sublime in the muddy world around him, created some idealised world for the purposes of his children's story.