Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Equality. Uch.

 My first A Level exam of this season is in less than 3 weeks, so now seems the perfect time to procrastinate and write this piece.

A few months ago, I finally came to terms with something about myself. I guess it’s something I've always known about myself, and much as I've tried to deny it, I could no longer live a lie. And now I feel it’s time to share that part of me with the internet.
 I am a feminist.

 My journey into feminism and how I came to identify with it overall probably began when I started to really think about what it meant to be a feminist. I remember another guy in the changing rooms after PE saying to me that “feminism is sexism”, and that’s a misconception that I find understandable, but even before I identified as a feminist I knew that wasn't true.
 If you’d asked me a year ago if I was a feminist, my response would be something along the lines of “I believe in equal rights and general equality between men and women, but I don’t consider myself a feminist, no.” The first part of that sentence remains true; I still for some reason rather like the idea that a person’s rights should not be defined by what’s between their legs. But it was only this year that I realised that that makes me a feminist, whether I like it or not.

 I owe some of my self-discovery to the JFS FemSoc, which I found that I agreed with a lot more than I wanted to when I heard it was to be set up. A lot of what I heard in those meetings, such as about the continued problem that is sexual assault and domestic violence, rung very true with me.
 But with regards to actually being a feminist, I owe that entirely to my mother. I am a massive mummy’s boy, and proud, and when I was growing up my mum stayed at home with me and my older sister, something I am eternally grateful for because I owe any academic success I’ve ever had to the work she put into me when I was younger. Having a mum like mine was always going to intrinsically make me have more respect for women, but she also raised me to have respect for everyone around me, regardless of race, class, religion or gender. It sounds a bit left wing at times, but I still totally believe in those values; that you should always have respect for your fellow human beings.

 I suppose there are two events I can now look at which confirm my conversion to the feminist movement.
 The first came a couple of months ago on a bus, when I heard the most unpleasant conversation I've ever had the misfortune of hearing. A group of 14 or 15 year old guys were talking about their adventures with the opposite sex, and it was the most dehumanising way anyone could talk about other people. All guys have had conversations where they've talked largely about girls’ looks, and it’s not always politically correct, but this was beyond objectification of the girls they were talking about; they started talking about actual human beings as if they were animals. I can’t even remember any quotes that I can repeat without feeling ill at the way human beings were described.
 I have to admit, I never thought I’d interrupt the conversation of a group of people I didn't know to have a go at them, but these were students of the same school as me, and this conversation was shameful. When I informed them of how disgraceful I found their chauvinistic misogynistic conversation, they didn't seem to care, which I can’t say was surprising, but then something else concerned me. One of the guys asked, upon me telling them not to talk about girls like that, if I was gay. Now I accept, I'm a bit camp at times (start any song from Les Mis or Wicked or Chicago and I can pretty much guarantee I’ll be able to finish it), but that wasn't why he asked; he asked if I was gay because he found it so unbelievable that a straight guy could feel so strongly about the need to respect women. That really concerned me, because it seems that these guys’ perception of what it is to ‘be a man’ or to even be heterosexual is to dehumanise girls and talk about them in the manner they were, and that’s the truly worrying thing.

 My second defining moment came earlier today. For around 7 years now, my mum has been running her own children’s arts and crafts events company, which I often help out with, and we do various events such as birthday parties and holiday workshops. Today was one of our workshops, and as usual we started with the art stuff. The first piece the kids did was colouring in a flower. A 6 year old boy looked at me as I gave him his flower, and told me he didn't want to do it because it was ‘girly’. Not because he didn't like flowers, or because he didn't like colouring in, but because at 6 years old he already had this idea that boys shouldn't like certain things simply because they’re boys, and that certain things were reserved exclusively for girls.
 It made me think about another key part of the format of any birthday party or holiday workshop; the pass the parcel. We have this box thing that plays music itself and can be controlled by a remote control usually in my pocket, and inside there are plastic eggs of various colours which hold the prizes, pretty much all of which are toys, within them. For the entire time I've worked with mum’s company, we've opened the pass the parcel session with a monologue explaining how the game works with our box, and more critically, what the colour of the eggs mean; “blue and green are boys’ toys, pink, purple and red are for girls, and orange and yellow are for both” I've told the children present tens if not hundreds of times. It was only today that I realised the damage this did; firstly, we perpetuated the idea that blue and green are ‘boyish’ colours whilst pink, purple and red are ‘girly’, and even worse, we effectively told the kids that the kind of toys they should like were determined by their sex. Of course, boys were allowed to pick pink eggs, just as girls could pick blue if they so wished, but in the few times I have seen a boy pick an egg we’d labelled as ‘for girls’, it was always met with a chorus of “no that’s a girl’s toy!” from the other kids, and to my recollection I only remember one boy picking a girl’s egg and sticking with it in the face of the outcry. Unintentionally, these kids were only furthering the ingrained idea of gender stereotypes, and making it harder for the boys who like bracelets or the girls who like Star Wars to get the toy they actually want.  (I do also think it’s worth mentioning that in my experience girls are more comfortable taking a ‘boyish’ toy than boys are taking a ‘girly’ one, and they face much less shock from the rest of the group if they do so).
 So I raised this issue with my mother, and as of today, we've revoked 7 years of precedent within the company, and from now on, egg colours reveal nothing about the gender that would be expected to enjoy their contents. We've always allowed the kids to change any toys they didn't like once everyone has got a toy (and yes we do always make sure that every child gets a toy) so this seemed the obvious solution if, say, a boy did end up with a ‘girly’ toy that he didn't want to keep. We tried this today, and both the kids who’d been before with the old system and the new kids who had their first workshop today had absolutely no problem with this. The overall result was, at least to me, somewhat interesting; I didn't see any girls with toys we’d previously subscribed to boys or vice versa, but there was a considerable increase in the number of kids who took home toys we’d normally have branded as being ‘for both’.
 Don’t get me wrong, I'm well aware we haven’t even come anywhere near to ending the gender expectations of the children’s toy preference, and I imagine it still might not be easy for a boy to keep a ring with a heart on it or a girl to take home a dragon toy, both because of the reactions of their peers and the reactions of their parents. I also do sincerely believe that girls are always going to be more likely to prefer the ring and boys are always going to be more likely to prefer the dragon, independent of any progression society makes, because there are some genetic links to gender stereotypes. But I feel pleased we at least aren’t furthering the expectations on these children for what colours and toys they like based purely on their genders.

 I had intended to also use this piece to talk about a lot of the problems I see with some modern feminists and the movement in general, and the manner in which I feel I went a long time without identifying with feminism because I've never really identified with many feminists, but I really should be working, so that’ll have to come another time.