Friday, April 16, 2010

Image problem

A woman's place by Pants

When I was thirteen, my single-sex school treated us girls to a showing of the German 'sex education' film Helga. This milestone in my life is unquestionably the reason I never had children. It was the halogen moment in which it dawned on me that society had not a single clue what it was doing. I have never since been able to reconcile the pervasive baby culture of broderie anglaise cot covers and angora booties with the bloodbath up there on the screen.

Girlhood was pretty confusing all round for me. The world always seemed a hemisphere and seven eights short of a full globe in visceral sensibility. By thirteen, I'd already had to deal with the specious nature of menstrual blood. It was very strange to learn that there was a type of bleeding that was viewed entirely differently from the type I was used to. If you fell and grazed your knees, there would be dabbing and disinfecting involving a cast of thousands and a thick Mercurochrome coating that announced to the universe via a bright tangerine badge of courage that you had bled. By contrast, getting a period seemed to occupy the same moral latitude as your average heinous witches' coven. It was the bodily fluid that dare not speak its name.

The intellectual netherland surrounding the female nether-regions has always been a toughie for male society to manage. From chastity belts to foot binding, from whalebone corsetry to nubile brasserie, it seems clear that the male ruling class as a body politic has just never been able to work out how to interact with women. Like any entity that has no idea what it's doing, it has been masking its ineptitude with a flurry of bumptious activity for millennia. Cut to the present day and the media would have you believe that it is still under the impression that there is no more pressing a business in the conducting of humanity than to direct women in getting themselves tarted up. No wonder space exploration has stalled.

Stay with me, I'm labouring towards a point. But first a little context. In Britain, yet another spat has broken out about what young girls should be wearing. Mumsnet has started a campaign called Let Girls Be Girls, triggered by the apparent marketing of padded bras and bikini tops to pre-sprouts of primary school age. In a perfectly reasonable and concerned parental way, Mumsnet is showing a yellow card to clothing manufacturers. I think we all know the free market is not without a need for boundaries. This is what Mumsnet is suggesting,

This Mumsnet campaign offers retailers and manufacturers a positive course of action - to take the lead in ending the premature sexualisation of children through their products and marketing.

Mumsnet's action has triggered the usual array of simplistic arguments about what is and is not 'empowering' for girls to be splattered all over the British and international press. (Pause for reflection on what it takes to make international news these days - cheers Rupert). Just to clarify, there is nothing you can buy in a shop that will give you power save perhaps a petrol generator.

I landed on Laurie Penny's piece in one's beloved Guardian today because it was a more nuanced view than the index-card statements that had been tossed out everywhere else. She starts out by saying Primark's padded bra - one of products targeted by Mumsnet - is a far better solution for girls attempting to survive the gauntlet of boy teasing than stuffing your top with toilet paper. This may well be true. That I went to a girls' school appears to have been a blessing in retrospect as I did not ever have to resort to stuffing my shirt with toilet paper to maintain my self-respect. I do remember coveting a 30AA 'trainer' bra in Woolworths aged twelve but I don't believe my mother's conclusion that I 'didn't need it' did lasting damage to my psyche or my ability to turn out for hockey.

Unfortunately, Penny conflates what I think are two separate and unrelated concepts in her piece. Being teased by boys is obviously vile and real but individual and fleeting and also quite possibly able to be handled without resort or reference to international commerce. (I wouldn't want to be accused of corrupting minors but if you happen to be reading this and you are a flat-chested nine-year old, you might try a retort of 'you have a tiny, shrivelled dick'. If it works. promise me you'll harass your parent or carer for books instead.)

The presumed 'sexualisation' of pre-teens for corporate profit - which is what Mumsnet is concerned about - is a different thing. I say 'presumed' because I'm not entirely sure that the 'sexualisation' of girls is what's being sold. Here's what Penny has to say,

The notion of "sexualisation" deserves serious critical unpacking. The term envisions girl children as blank erotic slates upon which sexuality can only ever be violently imposed. This narrow vision of sexuality leaves no room for young girls to explore authentic desire at their own pace, insisting instead that girls need to be protected from erotic influence, while boys, presumably, are free to fiddle with themselves to their hearts' content.

Sadly, this much is true. Boys have always been able to fiddle to their hearts' content, except for a brief period in Victorian times when mothers were implored to 'mark' them with iodine should they be caught in flagrante somnio. Hitler was probably one of those caught in the act. But don't boys usually receive preferential treatment from parents and community to begin with? Even more sadly true is that girls are perceived by marketeers as blank slates and not just in the erotic sense. But isn't this because girls are still generally not encouraged or supported by their parents or community in taking up academic pursuits or even outdoor activities? Where is the female equivalent of the skate park or football pitch? Where else is there for girls to go but the shopping mall? I was interested also in Penny's conclusion,

The online mumocracy's call for retailers to "show parents that their company believes that children should be allowed to be children" is irrelevant to the real experiences of girls growing up in a world where our sexual impulses are stolen and sold back to us.

Padded bras for preteens are not the problem. The problem is a culture of prosthetic, commodified female sexual performance, a culture which morally posturing politicians appear to deem perfectly acceptable as long as it is not 'premature'. By assuming that sexuality can only ever be imposed upon girl children, campaigns to 'let girls be girls' ignore the fact that late capitalism refuses to let women be women – at any age.

I felt the early rumblings of an epiphany so I went for a jog. I thought, of course she is right about capitalism, and women have been saying this for forty years. But there is something else here. I should warn you at this point that I jog very slowly.

Warning - I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent here. I'm a feminist and I grew up in a lucky age, I admit that. I would probably describe myself as middle class although I have no real grounds for it other than most of my family are property owning. None of us are professionals in the classic sense, although we are reasonably well-educated. In reality, I have lived most of my life in the poorer neighbourhoods of metropolitan Australian and British cities. I mention this because I want to make it clear that I am not privileged except in the sense that all people who live legally in wealthy countries are privileged. Yet, I can honestly say that I have never been mistreated by any man either at work or in my private life. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen, only that if the subjugation of women was so wholesale, surely I would have fallen victim at some point.

I find I'm having to challenge some of my own long-held beliefs here. I'm sure there must be lots of evil, bossy men in the world but I've never actually come across any of them. I'm thinking that men fall to a default position of controlling because they have no idea how to deal with us differently. I was around in the 70s. I remember that men were quite interested in alternative lifestyles - until they discovered that housework is not as much fun as being in the pub.

I think what I'm trying to say here is that men have traditionally organised women because women agree to being organised and that this collusion is facilitated by whatever the prevailing societal guiding principle happens to be. In times past it was religion. Women's sexuality was originally fetishised by religion. That fetish has simply been turned into a product by the free market because that's what it does - it turns potential into money. Groups of men are not meeting at corporate board level and determining that they will 'sexualise' nine-year-olds for their delectation and material benefit. Have you never witnessed the pitiful sight of a husband waiting outside a boutique? Only the ones who own clothing factories really take an interest in what we are wearing.

Men worked out long ago that they needed simple solutions to their apparel needs if they were going to have time for other pursuits. Dealing with free willie started with the codpiece and ended with the Y-front without the involvement of an expensive agent provocateur. Consequently the newspapers are not full of articles about how male genitalia should be decorated. Maybe they do look dull in their horrid black suits, white shirts and striped ties but at least they get to have conversations that are not about nail varnish. Capitalism may be powerful but I can assure you that no one has frog-marched me into K-Mart lately. Now, can we please talk about something else...