Argus title :
S.J. Williams of Hove recently wrote to the Argus in response to one of my columns – which was about sexism in contemporary Britain. It was, as my husband said, one of my “rants” (he means this as a compliment).
Broadly speaking Mr Williams agreed with me. However, he noted that I had not dealt with the issue of female “laddism” – the tendency of some young women to ape some of the drunkenness or bad behaviour of men.
He wrote “Having witnessed examples of this gradual alignment of some, apparently very angry, young women with their male counterparts – particularly evident, at times during the World Cup – I’d be interested to read Ms Calder’s views as to its origins.”
Mr Williams raised an interesting point and started me thinking, not just about the media-fuelled birth of the ‘laddette’ but also the long-standing problem of female complicity with men’s bad behaviour.
The situation of women is unique because the theatre in which their worst exploitation takes place has historically been the family, where there are often ties of loyalty and love as well as resentment.
However, all communities which experience discrimination and abuse become, to some extent, complicit in their own abuse. Most are forced into it in order to survive, for rebellion is not always possible. It demands sacrifices and creates additional risk.
Many people choose to keep their heads down and cope as best they can, while others pursue self-interest at the expense of the community from which they spring, making partial gains despite or because of the continued subordination of their fellows.
However, whatever form they take, compromises disadvantaged groups make and the attitudes they internalise eventually become part of the problem. They are an obstacle to resistance.
It was part of the genius of the Civil Rights movements in the USA and Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, in the 1960s and 1970s, that they were able to address such issues.
The Black Consciousness movement focussed on the way in which negative and racist images of Black people had been internalised by Black people. It encouraged Black people to have belief in themselves and pride in their bodies, condemning attempts to mimic White people by skin-lightening or hair straightening.
The Women’s Movement of the 1970s sprang out of the Civil Rights Movement and was heavily influenced by ideas of Black pride.
The Movement encouraged women in pride and self-reliance. It urged them to strengthen their bodies and to learn basic self-defence. Wives and daughters who had previously accepted it was men’s right to beat and abuse them, began to rebel. Mothers who had hitherto valued their sons above their daughters, giving them greater access to education, money and even food, began to question the way families were organised.
Young women of the 1970s and 1980s demanded that responsibility for child care and household duties be shared with partners or be funded by the state. They called for refuges and safe housing, equal training and education, and above all, control over their own bodies and fertility. Under the slogan “the personal is political” they demanded recognition that their personal relationships and the exploitation of their labour in the family had political and economic significance – and could lead to abuse of their human rights.
For a brief heady period it seemed that women’s liberation was an unstoppable force. Huge gains were made, but there was always intense resistance to change and the backlash when it came, was ferocious.
Feminism and feminists were first vilified, then ridiculed and finally simply ignored. Women’s unpaid work in the home and as carers for children and the elderly had always been vital to the economy. However, the modern state also needed their paid labour. Job opportunities were widened and a proportion of ambitious women were quietly absorbed into the society’s power structures – without seriously threatening any aspect of traditional power relations.
While the principle of equality between men and women has come to be broadly accepted – at least in theory – in practical terms it is no where near a reality. In many ways, such as vulnerability to sexual exploitation, sexist violence and religious fundamentalism, women’s situation is as bad as or worse than it was 10 years ago.
In an atmosphere of backlash, many women have discovered that they can best survive by fitting in with existing power structures.
One obvious example of this is that female teachers of literature who in their youth fought for proper academic recognition of the great female authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, now, without a murmur of protest, teach GCSE and A level courses entirely dominated by male writers.
Some fear to be called ‘feminists’, while others don’t want to appear ‘strident’. A significant number earnestly justify this blatant cultural discrimination by saying that “boys need to be encouraged to read”. A frightening number have so far internalised the sexist value system of the educational culture within which they operate that they genuinely believe that the set male authors are ‘better’ than their female counterparts.
Our girl children are permitted to do well in school, but only if they conform to a culture which continues to undermine their own sex’s contribution to culture and history.
In the fifties women were forced to be housewives and mothers. Now they are expected to do the work of housewives and mothers and go out to work as well. Then women were required to be virginal before marriage and called slags and whores if they were not. Now they are under pressure to be sexually active from their early teens – and are still called slags and whores.
In the 1950s girls did better than boys at 11+ but were discriminated against to ensure that the ‘right’ number of boys went to Grammar School. Now they are grudgingly allowed to excel, but are told they are emasculating the boys around them. Time and again they hear they are doing better than boys, but everywhere they look men are in power.
Young women are caught up in a kafkaesque game in which the rules are contradictory and which they cannot therefore win. Their lives are characterised by self-loathing and dominated by longing – and all too often envy of the apparent successes of other women. Their history has largely been stripped from them and they have no adequate language to articulate their experience.
It must seem that the only way to make sense of their world, or to gain approval and acceptance, is to take on the sexism of the culture around them. So young women compete with each other like drowning cats in a bag, colluding with sexist or abusive males and regularly using misogynist insults against each other – such as ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, ‘slag’ and ‘cow’. Their sense of alienation is frightening.
The present political climate does not allow mainstream music services to promote music by White musicians justifying the torture and murder of Black people. And it is frankly inconceivable that Black people (or most Whites) would defend it.
Yet, the music establishment does promote music – such as that of “50 Cent” “Eminem” and “Murder Dolls” – which uses grossly misogynist language and appears to justify sexual and domestic violence against and murder of women. There is no outcry about this in parliament or the newspapers, nor any demonstrations or moves to ban or boycott such music. Young women are expected to simply accept it.
Many young women deal with this verbal assault upon them by ignoring the lyrics, or pretending they can’t hear them or by saying they are “a joke”. A very few think themselves into the mindset of an abuser and actively enjoy them. Whatever their strategy, it involves acceptance of powerlessness or self-hatred
Our daughters live in a misogynist culture. Having learned contempt for other women, they can hardly be expected to have much respect for themselves.
Small wonder then that there is an explosion of self-harming behaviour amongst girls – and that they drink to excess. For alcohol is not just a social lubricant it is also an anaesthetic.
‘Laddettes’ misuse of alcohol is not a result of women’s liberation, it is a symptom of women’s ongoing subordination – one which produces large profits for the drinks industry and supermarkets as well as tax revenue for the government.
In the 1940s newly ‘liberated’ American women were sold cigarettes using the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”. Now alcohol is peddled as a symbol of freedom to British women who are told they have already arrived.
It’s as big a lie as it ever was.