In Search of the Real Woman

By Sarah Van Horn

Recently, a report called Blurred lines: Exploring Contemporary Attitudes to Gender Portrayal in the Media — carried out by the BBC — found that there is a desire amongst audiences to see more ‘real women’ on television. Whilst the notion of a ‘real woman’ is curious, it’s easy to recognise where this desire is coming from.

Our media unabashedly exposes us to images of women with perfectly contoured, tanned, bleached body parts: a single blueprint for an ideal feminine beauty. And yes, maybe we are aware that she has been nipped, tucked and photo-shopped, but this does not take away from the fact that she is what is presented as the ideal: what we should be aspiring towards. A destructive culture of comparison has been created whereby women are taught to compare themselves to an unattainable standard of beauty.

That said, I do find the notion of suddenly populating our screens with ‘real women’ problematic, for a number of reasons. First of all, it begs the question: what is a ‘real woman’? The term suggests that not all women are real women. More specifically it tends to be used to refer to women who are not skinny, as in the ‘real women have curves’ trope that has been circulating over the past few years. But skinny women are real women;  so are fat women. So are women who have children and women who don’t, and women who work outside the home and women who don’t. Women who get Botox injections and have boob-jobs are also real women. They are ALL real women, because they are human beings. Suggesting that some women are not ‘real’ while others are, comes dangerously close to reinforcing the existing restrictive binaries into which women have historically been placed (such as virgin-whore). Real women are complex and multifaceted, just like real men.

The other concern about the notion of promoting visibility of so-called ‘real women’ is that it risks making the public humiliation of women and their bodies permissible. I suspect certain tabloids would justify photographing female celebrities in highly intimate situations as a means to meeting the demand for ‘real’ women; providing us with proof that they are REAL, just like us, because they too have cellulite! Thanks, but no thanks. All this is doing is adding to a nasty culture of competition between women with an incessant focus on bodily imperfection.

Why does ‘real’ always seem to refer to how a woman looks? If we insist on using ‘real’ as the goal, why not include the real conversations, ambitions, lives and worries of women? It’s time to move on.  All women are real women. What’s unreal is the unwavering focus on their bodies.

Politics, Intersectionality and Empathy: Representation at the UK General Elections 2015

By Kaammini Chanrai

I am what they call an ‘ethnic minority’. Although there are over 1 billion Indians worldwide, I am a minority in the country that I live in, which is also the country in which I was born. According to the 2011 census, British Indians make up 2.3% of the population, which equates to nearly 1.5 million individuals (although I imagine this figure has since risen). And yet I giggle, as when I try to search for how many Indians there are in the UK, Google tries to guess my search by correcting it to Indian restaurants.

I am also a woman. Not a minority by any means, women make up 52% of the population. Referring to the 2011 census again, there are over 32.2 million of us in the UK. And yet somehow, this idea of ‘the women’s vote’ still exists. We are once again homogenised into a single entity whereby our differences are overshadowed by the common feature of our vaginas. Well done, politicians. Well done.

I should probably also mention that I am a member of Generation Y. Or the ‘youths’ as they like to call us. Although this is not the first election I am able to vote in, I fit neatly into this category of individuals who prioritise cost of living, affordable housing and unemployment. It’s true – as someone currently in part-time, temporary employment in the non-profit sector, I do worry about all of those things. It all seems intuitively fair but, once again, I am treated as a group, not as an individual.

Let’s complicate things further. Almost a third of new parliamentary candidates were privately educated. But, then again, so was I. I attended an all-girls private school since I moved to London in 2003. However, let’s reflect on the fact that the annual salary for an MP is £67,060. Last year, it was reported that the average UK wage was £27,000 – I’ll let you do the maths. Whilst I will not disclose what I earn on the Internet, I can say that I get paid significantly less than our politicians – as do most individuals my age.

Finding the figures for this intersection – a British Indian female youth – is harder than you might think. After several Internet searches for this statistic, I stopped after repeatedly turning up with reports to do with child marriage and surprisingly, Mindy Kaling. And whilst I am a fan of the latter, this was not particularly useful.

So, with the UK General Elections just around the corner, is there an obvious choice of who I should vote for?

According to reports, as an ethnic minority I am more likely to vote Labour. According to further reports, as a woman, I am more likely to vote Conservative. And whilst the Liberal Democrats seemed to attract us ‘youths’ at the last election, it seems that this time, the Green Party and the Conservatives are more likely to receive our vote. Regardless, I will be the first to admit that listing these statistics is a pointless activity as I highly doubt that knowing how those like me are voting is going to influence my vote.

But that doesn’t stop the occasional manipulation by politicians. Call me cynical, but I feel used. My multiple identities are thrown around as political jargon in an attempt to sway me one way or another. I am not seen as an individual, I am seen as a ticked box. UKIP’s latest policy to scrap the Tampon Tax illustrates just that. If it weren’t for the fact that UKIP wanted to scrap paid maternity leave, legalise gender discrimination and scrap employment regulations against sexual harassment (amongst other things), I might actually believe that UKIP genuinely care about women.

This is just a pathetic attempt to get women on UKIP’s side, just as the Liberal Democrats did towards youths with their insistence that the rise in tuition fees has not deterred young people from attending universities. This is poor from Nick Clegg, who didn’t even have the time to attend election hustings in his Sheffield Hallam constituency – the most student-heavy ward in the UK. Sorry politicians but these attempts are not nuanced and tend to disregard intersection. If you’re going to isolate me through your immigration policies, don’t expect me to forgive you for citing me as an important individual. I will not be fooled.

***

When I watched the Leaders’ Debates a few weeks ago, I was largely disappointed. I was faced with seven representatives – those select few of the population who are meant to reflect all of us. They were majority men (an inaccurate reflection), they were all white (again, inaccurate representation), they were all over 40 (I’m not going to throw a fuss over this one) and they are all earning significantly more than the national average. None of these representatives came close to representing me.

I started to relate how I felt about this to the concept of empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference. I was reminded of a passage that I read in a recent article in The Guardian:

“Dr Geoff Bird of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London shows us that our empathy for someone is critically affected by how much we identify with them. For someone within our “in group” our hearts may bleed, but for someone perceived as part of an “out group” we can be amazingly callous.”

I applied this distinction to the politicians on screen. As a 23-year-old, non-white woman, I found it next to impossible to identify with any of these political leaders. I continue to find it very difficult to identify with MPs in Parliament – unsurprising, considering how poorly they reflect the population.

More importantly, I question how any of them are able to identify with me.  As I stared at the four men and three women on screen, I doubted that any would truly be able to empathise with my position. How would they even try to identify with the needs of someone like me? Or, alternatively, the needs of someone who is nothing like me but equally, or more, underrepresented.

It shouldn’t matter that politicians don’t look like us and yet I continuously find that it does. Politics comes from the Greek: ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ I struggle to grasp how such a male-dominated, white, older generation of individuals can really be ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ When this lack of diversity is reflected in their political values, one can’t help but wonder if this inability to empathise is undermining our democracy.

What is more, this is also mirrored by who chooses to vote. In the 2010 UK General Election, the turnout for women voters was 2% less than male voters. More shockingly, 24% of ethnic minorities aren’t even registered to vote and this figure rises to 50% for those of African origin. Voting is a right, not a privilege – if we want to be reflected politically, this is certainly a good place to start.

Uber & the UN: Using Gender Segregation to Achieve Gender Equality

By Kate Gilchrist

A few weeks ago, the UN retracted its proposed link-up with ride-sharing firm Uber. Under the initiative announced only a few weeks earlier, Uber and the UN intended to create one million jobs for female drivers by 2020. Those female drivers would hopefully provide safer rides for female-only passengers travelling on their own. Sounds good right? It would have tackled two female-friendly issues at one time: economic empowerment of women and better safety for women passengers travelling in taxis… So why did the UN suddenly pull out?

It was in direct response to concerns raised by the International Transport Federation Union. It was left to the ITF – backed by a number of international women’s organisations – to highlight Uber’s questionable (and well documented) employment practices and safety records. The ITF’s statement said: “Women already make up a high percentage of the precarious workforce, and increasing informal, piecemeal work contributes significantly to women’s economic disempowerment and marginalisation across the globe.” Uber jobs would “not contribute to women’s economic empowerment and represents exactly the type of structural inequality within the labour market that the women’s movement has been fighting for decades.”

Either the UN didn’t do its research (inexcusable considering that most people could probably have told them as much), or it gambled that the bigger headline of the creation of one million jobs for women – and the injection of funding/collaboration from the private sector – was enough of a pay-off. But what’s more remarkable is that the UN even considered it as it raises many other wider issues beyond those flagged by the ITF. While I of course support the principle of helping to create jobs for women, as well as potential ways to tackle violence against women – both real and significant social problems – this was not the way to do it.

Selling out

If Uber really wanted to make women’s lives safer, they could tighten their security checks and hiring practices. Surely if assaults are occurring within a business’ operation, legally the business should be held to account no matter how amateur their style of operation? At what point does the benefit of cheap rides obscure responsibility for safety? Oh, and they could just actively hire more women if female underemployment is their equal concern: in the US for example, only 14% of UBER drivers are female.

The real incentive was that Uber stood to make a profit from this on several fronts. It would grow its employee headcount and (female) passenger numbers and counter one of its key criticisms, which is that, as its taxi drivers are unlicensed they are a less safe way to travel than licenced taxis, as has been well documented. It would also have benefited from the huge international publicity and prestige gained from being associated with a global human-rights-friendly brand like the UN, and from the resulting glow of appearing to be a socially responsible business.

But being a profit-making entity, such behaviour is not surprising. The UN has no such excuse. As a non-profit making organisation that supposedly has gender equality as a central goal, its association with this initiative is highly questionable. Although the UN can never be wholly free from neoliberal forces and funders, it represents a further step towards the almost semi-privatisation of our human-rights orientated institutions. It is a move that continues to place the promotion of economic growth as the number one way to solve social problems. But what’s a little instrumental profit-making if ultimately the social benefits outweigh the negatives and you are working towards your goal of greater gender equality? Oh, wait, no, wrong again. Because what the project actually would have done is sustain some very dangerous messages on both sides of the gender divide – the over-generalising, gendered presumption that all men are dangerous and all women are vulnerable and need protection.

Gendered division cannot achieve gender equality

While violence against women is a definite problem which must be addressed – as feminist activists have long argued with events such as Reclaim the Night – we should not try to solve such issues by policing women’s behaviour and creating no-go zones in the name of gender equality. Gender division is not gender equality. Like women-only carriages on the tube (which has frequently been suggested on the London transport network) – restricting women’s movement is not liberation. Warning of and prosecuting perpetrators, increasing surveillance and campaigning for increased reporting as well as better handling of sexual crimes would go much further. Women-only drivers and rides would continue to suggest that once again, it is women’s responsibility to tackle gender inequality and we must change our actions. Two years ago I was travelling on an underground train in Singapore and was shocked to see a sign on the wall warning female passengers not to stand too close to male passengers wearing a short skirt in order to avoid assault. Whilst this is a more extreme example, it follows exactly the same logic of telling women to get on certain carriages, or ride in certain taxis, and that certain spaces are simply not safe for them.

Which moves us on to an even bigger problem. The initiative would also have reinforced and sustained the gender dichotomy: the idea that there are only two genders which we must all fit into. What about those who don’t pass, or don’t want to pass, the ‘bathroom test’ – who gets to decide if you fall into the ‘right’ gender category to partake in your taxi ride? Regulate that one, Uber. Thankfully this time the deal has been dropped but it was a close call and a warning to the UN to consider its strategic partnerships much more carefully.

Justin Bieber and Christian Grey: Sex Objects of the 21st Century

By Sarah Kendal

The women of our world have united. From every corner of the globe they have formed a mass of ‘Beliebers’ and 50 Shades fans, audibly panting with lust, funding these franchises with their or their parents’ hard-earned cash. Biebs and Grey’s fame relies purely on desirability: if women didn’t find them so sexy they would never have been this famous. E. L. James is not a good enough writer and Biebs just isn’t a good enough singer to acclaim such fame without their sex appeal.

One is human, one a fictional character, yet both have caused what the media have described as ‘palpable hysteria’. At a glance, Biebs is a spoilt baby-faced brat whose most famous song features him whining ‘Baby, Baby, Oh’, for most of it. Meanwhile, Grey is a controlling stalker who uses BDSM to express his emotions and employs legal contracts as foreplay. None of this seems particularly appealing, and yet, they have captured the desires of oh-so-many, almost with cultish popularity.

At the height of Bieber-mania, he had floppy hair, a puppy dog smile and a sort of feminised, unthreatening face. In his inevitable fall from grace he still has 61.7million Twitter followers. To the millions of girls around the world who are faced with male threat everyday, his affable manner, his pretty hair and his childish status were deeply eroticised. Biebs is an easy love-object for the pre-pubescent girl. Even Malala – the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner – loves him.

Meanwhile, Christian Grey is the young, good-looking billionaire with a bit of spanking and alpha-male pouting thrown in. His devoted interest, his alpha-male status and his inability to be in touch with his emotions (unless Ana ‘heals’ him), is a standard Mills and Boons construction of masculinity. Embarrassingly two-dimensional and consumable, he is easy to eat up and digest as a fantasy.

What I may find irritating in the lack of authenticity that these brands of masculinity present, is exactly what so many women find appealing. They are unreal. Biebs and Grey inhabit the cultural western maxims of sexual desirability, wealth, youth, Aryan, muscular physique. Meanwhile they purport to be utterly devoted and obsessed with an average young Ana or ‘fans’. They use a clichéd language of romantic love, echoing Disney, Mills & Boon and olden-day chivalry, but few of us live the kind of life where we expect our lovers to ‘be your soldier, fighting every second of the day for your dreams.’ They act out scenarios that are unrealistic or obviously untrue in comparison to our own reality. And their fans sing along to their catchy clichés with relish.

The presentation of this two-dimensional construction of masculinity is successful precisely because of its unrealistic status. Fantasy is meant to be unreal, and perhaps this is the secret of success for Biebs and Grey. Their brands present the idea of a ‘hero’ with a weakness: devotion to the female sex above all else. In this context it is not a surprise that so many lust-filled fans find this appealing. The culturally endorsed man puts a woman on a pedestal of worship, validating the female. In a world where women are constantly told to seek attention and validation, no wonder they find these men so deeply erotic.