On #YesAllWomen, and the Discomfort of ‘Good Men’



Following Elliot Rodger’s hate crime against women (yes, I know many news reports seem to have missed the misogynistic message he was sending, I know Wikipedia has decided to classify it as generic violence instead of violence against women, and I know The Good Men Project has decided it was really all about virginity, but make no mistake, it was a hate crime nonetheless), women all over the internet rose up with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, sharing stories of misogyny and sexual violence, pointing out how the little and not-so-little experiences that women are subjected to on a regular basis combine to create a society in which a killer like Rodger is made.

Somewhat predictably, there has been resistance from men reluctant to acknowledge the sexist culture that surrounds us; more specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that they, with their ‘harmless banter’ or only slightly sexist behaviour, could be complicit in a hate crime of such immense proportions.

One example of this is this piece by T.J Holmes, who believes that the hashtag is unfairly placing blame on men who consider themselves good men, who have never attacked women and probably never will, who are only guilty of what he sees as innocuous sexist behaviours, such as giving a woman their arm, or getting women to pass through doors before themselves. He states that “there is a huge gap between the man who catcalls a woman walking down the street and the man who opens fire on her”, and that #YesAllWomen has somehow led to a confused population of women who are unable to see the distinction between these two actions.

Yet, as someone who has followed the hashtag quite closely over the last week, I see no evidence of this “sense that all sexism is created equal”. There is nothing on the hashtag to suggest that shooting a woman is just the same as whistling at her on the street. What I have seen though, over and over again, is women asserting that we must connect the everyday sexism and harassment that women experience, with the underlying attitude of male entitlement to female bodies, thereby creating the conditions necessary for Rodger’s hatred of women to take root and flourish in that particular way. I have seen women point out how charged with fear many romantic / sexual interactions are for women, where it is often hard to tell if rejecting a man’s advances will lead to an uneventful evening, or an encounter with violence. I have seen women unite in their common experiences of being women in a man’s world, and call on men to take the responsibility of tackling the misogyny rampant in socialised masculinity. Nowhere have I witnessed the notion that a man who has regressive beliefs about being a “gentleman” is exactly the same as a mass murderer, which makes Holmes’ opening lines puzzling, to say the least.

And let’s not forget that we live in a world where women are brought up to expect and get over unwanted touching in bars and clubs, a world where a woman’s clothing and behaviour can be blamed for her rape, and where an unambiguously woman-hating killer is called a ‘madman’ rather than an extremist in a misogynistic society. Given this background, can you imagine that from now on, due to #YesAllWomen, any man who engages in sexist behaviour will be viewed and treated as no better than a mass murderer? Of course not. The idea that this is a serious concern for men is patently ludicrous.

I’m not surprised that many men are feeling uncomfortable after reading tweets on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. If one has lived one’s life completely oblivious to the systemic sexism that pervades everything we do, it can be a shock to suddenly realise that you, a well-meaning, kind-hearted man who would never hurt a fly, are complicit in a culture that has led to horrific instances of male violence against women. In fact, I’m glad of this discomfort. I would find it much more worrying if all men read about the harassment, fear and violence that women experience, and felt absolutely nothing. But don’t pretend that this discomfort is in anyway comparable to the actual lived reality of women’s oppression. Don’t ask women to censor their words and hide the truth because it makes some men feel unfairly blamed. Recognise how tiny sexist acts, while so seemingly harmless to you, can add up and add up and add up, to a culture where women are assigned inferior status, and hate crimes against women are a dime a dozen. Then take that discomfort and use it to drive change, rather than taking the easy path of denial.

The Objectification of Women – It Goes Much Further Than Sexy Pictures

When feminists decry the objectification of women, most people immediately think of the images that saturate our magazines, movies, adverts and the Internet, of women in varying stages of undress, dolled up and presented for the male gaze. Yet, while sexual objectification is a huge problem, it is, sadly, only a fraction of the objectification of women that permeates our world, from the moment we enter it.

Because it is all too obvious and difficult to ignore, we tend to focus on sexual objectification. The difference between the way women and men are portrayed in national newspapers and other media is stark— women are too often reduced to the sum of their body parts, heavily photoshopped to fit into an ever narrowing ideal of female beauty. It grabs our attention, we recognize that something isn’t right, and we confidently assert that this is sexism in action.

And we’re right, of course. Yet, an overemphasis on the ‘sexual’ aspect can obscure the much more problematic aspect of ‘objectification’, the iceberg of which sexual objectification is the visible tip. After all, being presented in a sexual way doesn’t always mean objectification. Sexy pictures of men, in contrast to sexy pictures of women, frequently portray them as sexual subjects, actors exercising their sexuality, instead of objects meant to gratify someone else’s sexuality.

Who is the subject, and who is the object?  Source: CNE

Who is the subject, and who is the object? Who is acting, and who is acted upon?
Source: CNE

So, what do I mean when I say that sexual objectification is simply the most visible part of objectification? Well, let’s start by differentiating between subject status and object status. While a subject is active, with agency, an object is passive, being acted upon. This dichotomy is reflected in our grammar; when we hear, “Fiona stroked the cat,” we recognize that ‘Fiona’ has subject status, while ‘the cat’ has object status. Now in an ideal world, we would find ourselves randomly cast as either subject or object at different times, depending on the situation, with no problems. However, in society’s dominant narrative, subject and object status is heavily gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women severely objectified.

These messages start right from the cradle. A study by Janice McCabe showed that male characters in children’s books far outnumber female ones, and that even when characters (eg. animals) are gender-neutral, they are often referred to as male when parents read them to their kids. This pattern is consistent in children’s TV shows, where only a third of lead characters are girls. The Smurfette principle, where only one female character is present in an entire cast of male ones, still holds true for many TV shows, with ‘female’ seemingly a characteristic of its own.

Having been brought up on a diet of stories revolving around boys and men, this male-centeredness continues to dog us throughout our lives. The vast majority of films produced tell the stories of men, with women cast as girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or in other periphery roles. In a typical year, only about 12-15% of top grossing Hollywood films are women-centric, focussing on women and their stories.

It isn’t just the media that does this. In everyday conversation, male pronouns dominate our speech and ideas. Every dog we see is a ‘he’, every stick figure a ‘he’, humans thought of as simply ‘mankind’. There are exceptions, though. Boats, cars, bikes and ships always seem to be ‘she’, but this is hardly exciting once we realise that they are all objects, and possessions of (usually) men, at that.

Anyway, the cumulative effect of all this is that we are socialising generation after generation to view the world, and the women in it, from the point of view of men. As a result, only men are seen as full and complete human beings, not women. Women are objectified — this means we are denied agency, and are seen from the outside, our own consciousness, our thoughts and feelings, utterly overlooked.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Rob Rosenberg, finds it natural to assert that players “don’t project themselves into [Lara Croft’s] character,” that they think “I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.” Even though they are actually playing as Lara.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that when society is presented with a case of male violence or sexual abuse, everyone looks at it from his point of view: “Oh, he must have been provoked to have done that,” “He was a nice man who just snapped,” “He must have been confused by her signals,” “Maybe he’s been falsely accused, how terrible to have to go to jail for that.” With every victim-blaming, rape / violence apologist comment, society reveals through whose eyes it looks, and the answer is invariably the man’s.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as “somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,” it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also “somebody”.

It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.

George R. R. Martin, and the Misogyny in Game of Thrones

Don’t worry – no plot spoilers!

According to an article on Gender Focus, the Game of Thrones panel at Geek Girl Con failed to fully acknowledge the depth of misogyny in the series, settling for run-of-the-mill cop-outs instead.

The usual suspects turned up. One of them was: since A Song of Ice and Fire is part of the fantasy genre, which is based on history, the social hierarchies of the time have to be portrayed faithfully and it isn’t sexist to do so. Another was: George R. R. Martin is a decent guy, so he can’t have been sexist. He was probably just a little insensitive.

As Hodge rightly points out, the first point does not hold water. There were no skinny, icy killers called ‘The Others’ in Medieval England. Summer has never lasted eight years. No king of ours ever won his crown by riding a fire-breathing dragon into battle. So why glorify the brutalization of women? Martin was not forced to do so. Everything in the book was a choice, and he chose to mimic the extreme inequality of that era.

Of course, that’s not to say that rape or the debasement of women can never be depicted in fiction. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was rife with scenes of rape and sexual torture of women, yet his books project a very strong feminist message.

First of all, Larsson is very clear as to his reasons for such scenes. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, he begins each section with a statistic, drawing our attention to the problem of violence against women in Sweden. “18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man,” Part 1 informs us. “46% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man,” says Part 2, and so on. The assaults and murders that happen in his books do not pepper the text like bits of fancy decoration; rather, they are central to the plot and development of his characters, and the reader is forced to appreciate the horror and depravity of such acts.

Sadly, in A Song of Ice and Fire, rape or abuse of women happen on almost every page. They are depicted in an offhand manner, completely gratuitous, and pass without comment. Worse, the perpetrators are frequently portrayed as sympathetic characters instead of villains. I came across a rape/assault reference almost every five minutes, and to give you an idea of just how much random rape that adds up to, each book is about 800 to over 1000 pages long. There are five books so far, with two more in the making.

Another significant difference is that Larsson’s fictional rapes occur in modern-day Sweden, and form part of a commentary on the unequal gender relations in the society to which he belonged. One of the panellists at Geek Girl Con said, “I think he [George R. R. Martin] is making a profound allegorical statement about the US in the last century.” Now I don’t buy this for a second. If Martin’s intentions were indeed to make a statement about the power relations in contemporary US culture, why on earth would he choose to set his tale in a world that obviously reflects the values of the medieval period? Far from encouraging his readers to think critically about today’s society, it smacks of a kind of moral complacency. The reader can look back at these knights and kings and think, “Wow, things were certainly grim back then. What a long way civilization has come.” Far from encouraging critical analysis of contemporary society,  it actually pulls it up short, luring the reader into self-congratulation – “We’re so much better than these barbarians!”

And that is why I cannot believe that Martin’s choices were geared towards societal reform. But that’s ok; not every work of fiction has to have a social or political agenda. There’s a place for all kinds of books, from the highly political Animal Farm to the mysteries of Agatha Christie, from the humour of Diary of a Wimpy Kid to the magical world of Harry Potter. But here’s the rub: we’ve established that A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t political. It isn’t humorous, and it doesn’t invite readers to exercise their wits. Martin’s series is in the same genre as Harry Potter is. It’s written purely for escapism and entertainment, where readers can leave the real world behind for a moment and revel in the author’s creation. But while there’s nothing too disturbing about a child (or grown-up) imagining that they can pick up a wand and do magic, there’s something very creepy about millions of people choosing to escape into a world where women are nothing more than objects to be bought and sold, where young girls are raped by the side of the road, and where the brutal killing of defenceless women is normalised.

The biggest mistake made by the panellists at Geek Girl Con was, in my opinion, an over-emphasis on George R. R. Martin himself. It appears that one of them personally knew him, and was thus keen to defend his character, assuring people that he was not a nasty piece of work. The implication is that Martin is not a bad man, ergo, his books can’t be that bad. I can’t stress enough just how flawed this line of reasoning is. I’m happy to believe that Martin is not a bad person. If he were to tell me that he’s never raped or hit a woman in his life, that he loves the women in his family and cares deeply about them, I will believe him. I do not think that he consciously intended to be sexist when writing the books. Indeed, there are a few scenes where he makes an effort to go against stereotypes, and some of his characters actually speak out about the condition of women.

What we need to understand, though, is that patriarchy is embedded into society, and has been so for a long, long time – as far back in history as you can possibly go. Individuals do not need to be villains to be sexist. Just as rapists are seldom men who pop out from behind a bush or accost you in a dark alleyway, perpetrators of everyday misogyny are not always violent men who blatantly hate women. They could be – and often are – people that you know and like. They could be your friends, boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, or colleagues. But that doesn’t mean they are all evil people. They are merely products of a patriarchal society who haven’t yet seen the possibility of a different way of being. They are me, before I embraced feminism. They are what I could be like, were I a man and had no reason to look too closely at society.

But until we learn to separate the individual from the misogyny that they perpetuate, and recognise that to vilify the misogyny is not to vilify the perpetrator, we will always be in danger of pussyfooting around the subject, instead of calling someone out on their sexism.


(Note: there are spoilers up to the third book in the comments)