Sneaky Sexism: Is feminism really making young women unhappy?
Laura Atherton's latest column looks at the sneaky sexism that we encounter, but don't necessarily register, on a day to day basis. From podcast fury to Instagram's algorithm fails and West End misogyny - can we ever escape it?
In June it was the 150th anniversary of the Fawcett Society. An organisation that works for gender equality founded by Millicent Fawcett who fought for the right to vote for women. The anniversary was, of course, commemorated by Woman's Hour and on their first show of their celebrations they had a panel of four women discussing the success, or not, of feminism in the intervening century and a half. One woman in the panel, Laura Perrins, chair of the Conservative Woman website, was so amazingly insulting to women that I became very aware that by listening to it as a podcast whilst walking the horrified and incredulous faces I was pulling in response to her diatribe were public.
One of her blogs even professes that, “Nigel Farage is the only politician willing to stand up for British women.” Yes, the (now ex) leader of a party that wants to scrap the right to maternity leave. She made the bold statement that feminism has made women unhappier and that feminism has created a generation of unhappy women. A fact was quoted that young women now are significantly unhappier and more anxious than previous generations. It was countered with the argument that perhaps that's because we are now allowed to be unhappy. That our emotions and opinions are more valid and open now so the previous data is not necessarily comparable.
They didn’t counter her with what I thought was an obvious reason; young women are more unhappy and anxious because of the incredibly high expectations put on young people now. Or because we are told (thankfully!) that we are equal and gender equality is present in our society but then are subliminally informed that this isn't true.
Not only do we have to deal with the aggressive internet trolls but there is also the sneaky sexism just ready to creep up on us and undermine our equilibrium. I recently began to follow Deliciously Stella on Instagram, she's a very funny alternative to Deliciously Ella and the world of clean eating. With her visual puns on the health food advice she is a great addition to my feed. Instagram then thought they'd make some helpful suggestions of who else I may like to follow. Their first choice was Adele. The singer. Now I wonder why my interest in a comedian could come up with the queen of ballads? Is it that these two woman are in the public sphere without toeing the line on 'thinspiration'? Are we so bombarded with sizeist social pressure on our size that even social media algorithms have to point it out to us?
Ad Life: Where Men are still Men
I've been very surprised recently that the the gender bias in the adverts of Task Rabbit (the app that helps you hire people to do the stuff that you don't want to) has got out of the marketing meeting and on to huge posters on the tube. Their adverts shout out about what you could be doing instead of the jobs around the house. One advert suggests that instead of cleaning your house you could be cleansing your mind through yoga and shows an immaculate woman contorting into mental calm but for men ‘Hanging Shelves’ is plastered over the image of a buff man on an indoor climbing wall. The sneaky promotion of gender stereotypes is shocking and, frankly, saddening. Have we not move passed these divisions? Can this help the happiness of young women? NatWest bank have also had adverts lurking on the tube to subliminally let us know our place. Their new mortgage advert contain slogans such as ‘Yes way José’ and ‘Yes more Mr. Nice Guy’. Yes, it is the 21st century and men are still making most of the ‘important decisions’. How far we have come.
Sexism takes centre stage
But the worst recently may not even fall into sneaky sexism category but instead go into the blatant, offensive and highly misogynistic box. ‘Sideways’ was released as a film in 2004 and hit the stage in London at St James Theatre. The plot tells of two men on a ‘bachelor party’ in the wine regions of California. The groom to be is out to enjoy his “last week of freedom” which turns out to mean cheat on his wife to be. As much as possible. He proceeds in pouncing on the any woman in sight, or, as the theatre put it on their website, “they find out that there’s more to be savoured in California than a few new bottles”, a sentiment that makes me feel a little queasy. The way the characters talked about women was derogatory, one a unforgettable line delivered during a wine tasting was, “it’s as smooth as going down on an Asian”. Sexist and racist in one fell swoop. The female characters are two-dimensional and entirely there as sexual fodder, with gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure. The Bechdel test would weep at this show. Even weeks later I cannot get my head around that a show with such archaic notions was being shown in London in 2016; there were lewd cheers from some men in the audience during the sex scenes and women shouting “wanker” at the Groom-to-be character, certainly a different atmosphere than usual at the theatre! One review called it a “perfect date night” show… only, I guess, as a clear way to spot misogynists early on!
So, no Laura Perrin, I really do not think that feminism and its fight for gender equality can be blamed for the unhappiness in young women, but rather the prevailing sexism that still tells us who and what we should be.