Sunday, 15 June 2014

Habs vs Feminism

Recently I saw a comment on facebook (see left) that I found troubling. The comment, still there at the time of writing over four hours since its original posting, reads "Why are all these feminists such freaks[?] :s" and is posted in response to a video that can be found here. What I find troubling is that this comes from a Habs Boy, a supposedly intelligent individual in the process of having his excellence nurtured. The comment, however, displays (at best) an ignorance of Feminism and a worrying ease at labelling all Feminists as freaks based on a video of one and at worst an active sexist attitude and dismissing of a (probably still misunderstood) Feminism movement. Granted the video goes over the top (to make a point, of course) and, if I am honest, I don't really find the analogy beyond the bit about salt at the start particularly amusing, which I imagine (despite the seriousness of the point she is making) was her intention. Anyway, that's all irrelevant because she, and other Feminists, are not freaks, regardless of whether the video goes over the top or is/is not funny. Of course that seems quite an obvious point. Trivial almost. And, indeed, it should be. The problem, however, is that it isn't. Not amongst a troubling number of people you encounter on social media and in real life but, more worryingly, it is also not the case, in my opinion, amongst many at Habs.

As part of my Introduction to Politics course, we had a lecture on Feminism, which (don't tell my lecturer this), I think was the only good lecture in the entire module. It more than made up for the mish-mash of Monty Python, jumping around and awful jokes that characterised the rest of his lectures. Clearly enthusiastic about the topic and passionate about the content of the lecture, it was a superb introduction to Feminism. At the beginning of the lecture he asked who would consider themselves as a Feminist and a very small number of students (not including myself) put their hands up. I had never thought about it, if I am honest. I never considered myself sexist, but I certainly did not want to associate myself with the much more radical notion of Feminism that I assumed was just 'Feminism'. By the end of the lecture, however, I was completely turned and ashamed of my prior ignorance of what Feminism was and my attitude towards it. The lecturer ended with the following sentence: "I don't believe that my daughter's life chances should be any different from my son's life chances because she is a girl, but because they are likely to be, that is why I am a Feminist." I am paraphrasing slightly, but I think it sums it up brilliantly but, more importantly for someone like me who was ignorant about Feminism and what it was, simply.

Why? Because I don't, for a minute, think that many would disagree with that sentence. When faced with the question of whether a sister, for example, should have different life chances just because she is a woman, I am fairly confident the vast vast majority of Habs Boys (including our "all feminists are freaks" friend) would think this a ridiculous question to ask. Of course our sisters' life chances should not be affected by their being a woman we would proclaim, unaware that we had just proclaimed to be Feminists. There are many strands, many different Feminist ideologies and many methods of achieving that goal, but that is the basic goal. The problem, however, is that many would then follow that with a, "But, they're women so, you know. Not as clever." or "They lack banter," or "But they'll end up in the kitchen, so why does it matter?" If reading that, as a Habs Boy, makes you uncomfortable then good - do something about it; if your instinct is to try and argue that it is not the case or deny the seriousness of it, I am afraid you are in denial. Whether or not we actually believed those things to be true, the ease at which we were able to say them and laugh them off was, when I look back at it now, shocking. As I have already said, I am ashamed of that, past, version of me. Habs Boys come to see a level of sexist "banter" as entirely acceptable, unaware of the fact that sexist jokes aren't just jokes, they have a knack of describing real situations that real woman face every day.

It is that comment that demonstrates this attitude towards Feminism: the ignorance of what it really is and the dismissing of those that are Feminists and the severity of the sexism that women face, which is, of course, in itself, sexist. The ease at which a Habs Boys can label 'all' Feminists as freaks based on a video arguing that a girl is never asking for it when it comes for rape, unfortunately, does not surprise me. I would hope the comment is aimed at the over the top nature of the video rather than the point she is making, but the belief that somehow making the point, in any manner, renders you a freak is troubling. Any prejudice, including sexism, is based on ignorance, an issue that needs addressing at Habs. If I had a chance to go back to Habs and lead an Open Day tour, I would inform parents that the biggest problem at Habs is the ignorance of Feminism and the levels of sexism (jokes or not) that are deemed acceptable.

Sometimes I feel disingenuous when I describe myself as a Feminist given events in my past, opinions I used to hold and arguments I have had (a discussion over Twitter with William Thong, who won't mind a mention and the opportunity to remind me what I was like, about an advert a particular haunting memory), almost as if they preclude me from being a Feminist now. I am glad for the lecture I had and the change in my beliefs. There is no shame in admitting you were wrong. There will forever be disagreements within Feminism and what it entails - the Page 3 debate (I can't decide if I agree with the 'me' that wrote that blog!) at Warwick a good example of this, perhaps, but at its bare bones, it is a very simple idea. I can only hope that one day the boy in question will stumble across something that will make him self-identify as someone who believes in, "...the radical notion that women are human beings," which is how Cheris Kramarae described Feminism, and not think of himself as a freak.

Update 1 16/06/14

Since posting this I have received far more of a response than I expected. I think what has happened is I have struck a few nerves and offended a few sensibilities - 'of course I am not sexist' has been repeated on the comments to my blog. To clarify, Habs is an example I used simply because I went there. It is not to say Habs is the only place this is a problem, nor an attack on the character of all current or former Habs Boys (many of whom I would still consider friends). It is simply an example.

In  any event, I do not, for a minute, doubt the sincerity of these 'I am not a sexist/I am a feminist' statements. If you read above, you will note above that I state Habs Boys would agree that a women's life chances should not be affected by her being a women - in other words, Habs Boys, in the main, would be Feminists on my definition. But then, I would have agreed and I, like many, did not act in a way to back up that agreement.

The issue is two-fold:

1. An ignorance of what Feminism really is

Whether this manifests because of an association of Feminism with solely more radical Feminism or merely a refusal to engage with Feminism, consciously or subconsciously.

2. A sexist culture

This is the crux of the issue. When I was at Habs I would never have considered myself sexist and had I come across a blog like this, I would have responded in exactly the same way as every Habs Boy who has posted on my blog has. In the least patronising way possible, I understand - no one wants to be labelled a sexist. However, we have to come to terms with it. There are countless examples - some highlighted in response to my blog - of Habs Boys making comments that were horrifically inappropriate and that cannot just be dismissed as a harmless joke. Of course, as was highlighted, a sense of humour is important but suggesting that the Habs Boys - banter = Habs Girls is just one example of a sexist "joke" that is not acceptable but was deemed acceptable. These sort of jokes perpetuate already strong stereotypes that are held amongst boys at all boys' schools like Habs that girls lack a sense of humour. When the head boy makes this joke, it legitimises the very real problem of dismissing cries of sexism as a girl's inability to take a joke. "Of course that was okay, it is just a joke, I'm not sexist - I don't actually believe that women all belong in the kitchen in chains to prevent their leaving." You know what, the last bit of that is invariably true, Habs Boys don't, I would argue, believe those things. However, in telling the joke and dismissing any offence caused as 'just an inability to take the banter' there is a subconscious sexism, a subconscious belief that if girls 'had banter' (if they were more like men), they would have laughed and not been offended. Undoubtedly sexist comments are rebranded as jokes, laughed at and approved of and culture where sexism is tacitly accepted as perfectly fine develops.

The problem is not unique to Habs, of course it is not. But there is an undoubted culture at the school where sexism is viewed as not an issue or ignored, leaving the boys all too ready to dismiss cries of sexism as misunderstandings and poor banter - as I once did, and as many currently and will continue to do.

Update 2 16/06/14

There are another two issues that need addressing after further comments on this post.

1. The example used

My choice of example as a springboard for this post has been criticised, both for misunderstanding the initial comment made and because the comment itself is not a bad example. I have two issues with this. Firstly it conveniently ignores the point of the article and attacks a premise that has no real bearing on the conclusion. Feminism and sexism remains an issue regardless of whether I understand that example properly or not and, indeed, I could have used a different example from my time at Habs. Second, I think the comment is quite a good reflection of the problem, if by no means the worse. The video is of a women making a serious point about rape and the response is that all these feminists are freaks. What an absurd response! I don't think the women makes her point in an especially amazing way, but it is a perfectly legitimate method of making a incredibly serious point. Attacking her character skirts around the real issue of rape and attempted justification - a serious one - and is just wrong for she is no eccentric.

2. I ignore a real issue of militant Feminism

Rejection of rape justification is not militant Feminism. Getting passionate in your speech against rape justification is not militant feminism. Rejection of rape justification is about as basic as you can get when it comes to Feminism, there is nothing militant about it. To suggest that somehow the initial comment was lamenting the plight of Feminism corrupted by its militant strands is remarkably offensive and avoiding the issue at hand. If militant Feminism was indeed the target, a video of a regular Feminist making a bog-standard point should not have been the one commented on. I, of course, dispute this was the target in the first place.*

It is hugely ironic that on a post and resulting thread about sexism at Habs that includes more than the one example I used initially, the anti-sexists and Feminists of Habs take issue not with the content of the blog, but the initial example I used. Apparently the real problem for many is not sexism but my example. Telling.

*Update 3 16/06/14: It should be noted that one of the comments this is in direct response to has since been clarified and I had misunderstood its intention. I am glad to have said comment in a message as now that I understand it fully, I can properly appreciate it. I leave these paragraphs here only in response to other comments that have been made without such clarification and as a general point about the mainstream nature of the video labelled as 'freaky'. As I point out, I do accept that the example I used is a small one and grant it may have been meant differently to how I took it (though such carelessness in commenting is also part of the issue). It is by no means the worst example (therein lies the problem) but its use, I feel, is still justified and demonstrative of the problem, whilst also being current and the initial motivation for the blog post.