Who Owns Our Bodies?

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Who owns your body? Well, you do, of course. But if you’re a woman, I’m afraid society doesn’t quite see it that way.

Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie made headlines when she disclosed her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%. While many were supportive of her choice and courage, hordes of outraged men (and some women) took to Twitter and Facebook to mock and condemn her for it. Among them were comments expressing sympathy for Brad (“Poor Brad”), jeering at Brad (“Serves him right for leaving Jennifer Aniston”), sadness for themselves that Angelina’s breasts had been removed (“There is no God”, “The best thing about her is gone”), as well as downright commands that she reverse the procedure (“Please put the boobs back on your chest”).

Here’s a small selection, credit to @isawfireworks on Twitter:

TwitterScreenshot

Let’s think about that for a little bit. Here is a woman, who is a world-famous actor, director and screenwriter, with Golden Globe and Academy awards to her name. Not only does she have a great career and a loving family, she is a UNHCR ambassador, and has invested her time and effort in bringing humanitarian aid around the world. But apparently, none of that matters. The greatest thing about her, that she should never let go of, no matter what the cost to her health, are her breasts.

We’ll come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on to another incident that ignited social media in the UK this week. UKIP, a far-right political party, has always been associated with offensive views, and yesterday saw them the butt of many a joke as it was revealed that one of their biggest donors believed that women wearing trousers were being deliberately hostile towards men. In fact, he believed this so deeply that he wrote an entire book about it, entitled ‘Women in Trousers: A Rear View’.

Here are some priceless quotes:

“Women have big bottoms, they are meant to have big bottoms. Countless women who would look lovely in dresses or skirts are embarrassingly unattractive in trousers.”

“Walk along any street and you see women using trousers like a uniform every single day. This is hostile behaviour. They are deliberately dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behaviour that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.”

Fortunately, his remarks were met with hilarity and ridicule, but as pointed out in the blog HerbsandHags, his comments are merely an extreme example of what many men truly feel — that they have a right to be pleased by the female body. Any, and every, female body.

And that is what links the incident of the hostile trousers with the backlash against Angelina Jolie. It stems from the idea that women’s bodies are public property, in particular, men’s property, and thus everything that a woman chooses to do with it is viewed as a way of pleasing them, or as an affront to them. It is for this reason that strange men on the Internet feel entitled to chastise Angelina Jolie for prioritizing her health over their right to ogle her breasts, and it is for this reason that whenever a woman is unhappy about her weight, random men think it a great comfort to her to proclaim, “It’s fine, I prefer larger women.” Because, didn’t you know, women’s bodies exist primarily for male pleasure.

The unspoken notion that it is not women, but men, who possess the rights to our bodies, is a dangerous one. Today, I was dismayed to find out that three men in Sweden had been cleared of rape charges, despite the horrific nature of what they had done, and the fact that they clearly had not had consent. (Read more about the case here. TW.) The judge’s verdict? “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.”

You see, when we are not considered to be the legitimate owners of our bodies, then our decisions regarding them become unimportant. Thus, the Swedish woman’s desire to not have something done to her body was seen as less valid than the rapists’ desire to carry it out; Angelina Jolie’s desire to have surgery was seen as less valid than men’s desire to leer at her breasts; and women’s desire to wear what they like is seen as less valid than men’s opinions on what they should be wearing. These vary in severity and the horror of their consequences, but it is the same pernicious mentality that underlies them all.

Who owns our bodies? We do. And it’s time the world knew that.

Advertisements

The Power of Silence in Enabling Domestic Violence

Source: GRIID

Source: GRIID

Society has long known the power of words. In 1838, Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, a phrase that has proven its own point by marching its triumphant way down the generations. Books and speeches have been immortalised as turning points in history, ideas that have taken root and changed the world. And as the power of words has been celebrated, the power of silencing has emerged as a crucial tool of the patriarchy, a way of keeping women underfoot. This is why old texts like the bible contain the following lines – “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12). It is why many cultures around the world require women to be demure and soft-spoken, speaking infrequently, and why, even in what we think of as the progressive West, outspoken women are regularly labelled ‘shrill’ or ‘hysterical’. It is a pattern cut from the same cloth, a way of ensuring that women’s views are kept hidden away, that we are kept compliant in the face of a system that has always been stacked against us.

Of course, it isn’t only women’s words that are erased. Any man bold enough to speak out against the patriarchial order is mocked for it, called a ‘gender traitor’ or ‘pussywhipped’, sometimes even leading to social exclusion. Given the immense social pressure to go along to get along, it is no wonder many choose to stay silent, no matter how much they may disagree with the rape joke that has just been told, or how much they dislike seeing their friend sexually harass a passing woman. And in this way, by meting out punishment to its critics, the status quo maintains itself.

And when it comes to domestic violence, the silence can be deafening. There is an overwhelming tendency in society to see it as a personal problem between two people, something they should sort out for themselves, and that it isn’t our place to judge the relationships of others. Our judgment centers around the woman in the relationship—we wonder why she doesn’t leave, speculate on her individual character, all the while viewing it as her problem to bear, rather than as a crime plain and simple, committed by the perpetrator. But here’s the key thing. Whenever we portray domestic violence as somehow less bad than random violence against a stranger, we’re furthering the idea that being in a relationship automatically gives a man the right to a woman’s body, and that being with him is tantamount to consenting to be hurt in that way. I feel this is really important, so I’ll say it again: Whenever we think that a woman who just doesn’t leave is responsible for what a man does to her, and that he is less culpable than if he had beaten a stranger, we’re implying that being in a relationship with him is akin to giving consent for whatever he might do to her. In other words, we’re equating a relationship with ownership, and decide that what goes on within it is nothing to do with us.

We need to break this silence, and decry domestic violence as an epidemic that is everybody’s problem. In the aftermath of the Cleveland kidnapping horror, it has emerged that warning signs aplenty were ignored—Castro’s long record of violence against women, neighbours’ calls to police treated lightly, and not followed up on. Could it be that, given that these incidents were taking place in a house, it was seen as ‘just’ domestic violence by the police? A personal relationship problem, and not a ‘real’ crime?

If you follow my blog or regularly read feminist writings, you’ll be familiar with the fact that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. Yet despite this staggering statistic, it is still largely marginalized as a ‘women’s problem’, and virtual silence in the mainstream about it as a pressing social issue. Male celebrities (especially white male celebrities) who have committed domestic violence, like Charlie Sheen, John Lennon, Mel Gibson, and Gary Oldman, have been subject to a ripple of condemnation, before the curtain of silence fell again. And while many brave survivors have spoken out about it, the onus cannot be placed solely on them. Every single one of us has a part to play in breaking the silence that has served to protect perpetrators for so long.

domesticviolenceuk.org

So what does ‘breaking the silence’ entail, exactly? Well, we could start by firmly disagreeing whenever someone makes a joke about violence against women. We could write to our MPs, asking them to make tackling DV a priority, and to increase funding for women’s shelters and other support services. We could volunteer at said services. We could contact companies selling products that promote or trivialize domestic violence and let them know how abhorrent we find it. We could air our views online, take to Twitter, write a blog, post on Facebook. We could challenge those who make excuses for violent men, and publicly refute those who mock or blame the victims. And we (especially the men amongst us) need to be far more vocal in challenging other men, and ask what it is about male culture that continually churns out men who abuse and control women.

None of this is easy. But if we keep turning a blind eye to the rampant problem of domestic violence in society, and insist on seeing it as isolated cases of relationships gone sour, if we excuse celebrity men for their actions and stigmatize the victim instead of the perpetrator, then the culture of male violence against women will continue to flourish in the silence of our complicity.

———-

* If you know a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence, please see this guide from Women’s Aid on what you can do to support them.

The Empowerment Project – Combatting the Representation of Women in the Media

The next time you’re at a cinema, watching TV, at a play, or even just passing by posters on the street, try this little experiment. Keep count of the number of women you see, and weigh that against the number of men. And for each person that you see, ask yourself just one question — is this person being objectified? That is to say, is sexual attractiveness the main identifying characteristic of this person?

As you probably know, this category will, without a doubt, be overwhelmingly female. Everywhere you look, the voices and thoughts of men push their way to the forefront, while women lounge silently in the background in decorative poses. Out of the 100 top-grossing films of 2010, only 19 centered around women, and according to the Media and Gender Monitor, only 24% of news stories globally were about women. (See more stats here) In media, women are denied personhood, and are reduced to sexual objects of flawless outward beauty.

Far from being “harmless fun”, the battle cry of misogynists everywhere, this one-dimensional portrayal of women is deeply damaging. In a 2010 paper by sociologist Stephanie Berberick, she outlines how the rising rate of cosmetic surgeries and eating disorders is related to the objectification of women in the media, and draws a link between this and violence against women. Young girls, in particular, are incredibly vulnerable to this endless slew of messages that their worth lies in how they look, and their ambitions are pulled in the direction of achieving physical perfection, to the detriment of other goals and opportunities.

Last year, The MissRepresentation project summed up the problem with the line, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Generations of women have grown up in a world, reflected through the media, where men go off on adventures, save the world, run the country, go off into space, achieve sporting excellence, develop as human beings. And women? Women are beautiful. The lucky ones get fallen in love with.

Which is why I was excited when I received an email about a docu-series called The Empowerment Project: Extraordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things. Led by Sarah Moshman and Dana Cook of Heartfelt Productions, the project aims to share the stories of inspirational women in a variety of career fields — how they got to where they are, their biggest challenges and how they overcame them, what it’s like to be a woman at the top of their particular profession. To make this vision a reality, however, the project needs funding, and needs to reach at least $25,000 by May 27.

You can have a look at the list of women they plan to interview on their Kickstarter page, and have a preview of their first interview, done with Jill Soloway, Sundance best director winner and director of Afternoon Delight, United States of Tara and Six Feet Under. The entire project will be undertaken by an all-women crew, who will not only do the interviewing, but will showcase their thoughts and experiences as they grow and learn on their journey.

The all-women crew!

The all-women crew!

If, like me, you’re tired of seeing and hearing only men wherever you go, if you’re tired of all-male expert panels on TV and endless male voices talking about their experiences on the radio, and tired of the constant portrayal of women as no more than instruments for male pleasure, then you’ll understand why this project is so worthwhile. Highly successful women are so often denied a platform that young girls have little opportunity of seeing what they could truly achieve, and too many believe that their only chance of success is through dieting, cosmetic surgery and a rich husband.

So get clicking, pledging and sharing, and together, let’s help make this happen. One project alone may not turn the tide on the abysmal state of female representation in the media, but we need to make it known that we reject the sexist depiction of women as purely aesthetic beings, and that we are hungry to hear and learn from women who have pursued their dreams and achieved great things. And in this mountainous battle, every little pebble counts.