A Straight White Guy’s Guide to Feminism Today

A forewarning before I begin- I, a privileged, heterosexual white male, am about to deliver a commentary on sexism. As such, I don’t expect to get everything ‘right’ and I can’t offer first hand accounts to the cause. Some may say I have no right to write on the subject, but frankly I find the field intensely interesting and it’s one of relatively few areas in which I have a strong opinion- so this is happening.

The feminist movement has, over the past few decades, achieved most (or at least many) of the goals it set its sights on when the movement first began. Most employers now advertise themselves as ‘equal opportunities’, there are next to no discriminatory pay scales nowadays and most of us wouldn’t find it odd to deal with a female doctor, lawyer, or politician. On the face of it, therefore, our society seems to be ideologically equal- ‘yes there are still some issues of execution’, so the argument goes, ‘but ask anybody in the civilised world if men and women are equal and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who’ll answer in the negative’. And that statement is, broadly speaking, true*; as such, it is the opinion of large sects of the population (both men and women) that feminism has won. It’s done, we finally live in a (mostly) equal society, and the feminists of today are just hardcore lesbians & man-haters.

(*or at least, that’s the impression I get in the circles I move in)

This is reflected in the delightfully dismissive name given to the feminist movement since the 1990s; ‘post-feminism’, a name implying that the movement is over. Unfortunately, the picture is nothing like as optimistic- the fact that feminism still exists as a movement and is a constantly throbbing discourse should alone demonstrate that women still face discrimination, as do statistics relating to the average salary of female employees and the number of women in high-ranking positions in society (particularly politics and the military). For some examples a little closer to home, I recommend the Everyday Sexism blog, provided you don’t mind having your faith in men the world over heavily shaken. To use a racial comparison, the Civil Rights movement was ‘won’ 40 years ago, yet racial discrimination still occurs on a large scale- even though most of us think of racism as A Bad Thing.

The problem is that feminists of today face a far more complex challenge than their predecessors, and feminism as a movement is a great deal more fractured. ‘Third wave’ feminism, for example, originated during the 1990s and placed a heavy focus on sexual liberation- however, it also attracted radicals and is the main source of the ‘man-hating lesbians’ stereotype. The more recent fourth-wave feminism has focused on the sexualised attitude men have towards women and the highly controversial concept of ‘rape culture’. Some feminists contend that there are no practical differences between men and women other than societal constructs and making babies- others acknowledge fundamental differences between the two and are engaged in constant infighting with the former group. Still others don’t conform to any faction within feminism at large but merely focus on one particular issue they care about- recent high-profile campaigns against female genital mutilation are one example.

Such is the challenge to a modern feminist- there is no clearly-defined goal, no obvious laws that need striking down (at least, not in the western world), no single bad guy to defeat. Instead, feminists find themselves attempting to navigate & restructure a minefield of tangled social constructs and attitudes. Not only have most of these attitudes been ingrained in society for decades or even centuries, no-one seems able to agree if they are wrong- the black and white certainties of early feminism have been replaced with shades of grey.

Sexualisation provides a good example- the idea that women are, from a young age, formed into and treated like sex objects by men a lot of the time. On paper, this seems like a quite clear cut Bad Thing- a girl walking down the street minding her own business is unlikely to appreciate a ‘get your tits out for the lads’ comment from a passing car, and it’s straight up insulting that that a woman is thought of as nothing but a set of T&A in that situation. However, consider a counter-example; that same girl on a night out being hit on by a guy, dancing close & giving his best pickup lines a go. The guy in that scenario is quite clearly viewing the girl as someone to have sex with, but this wouldn’t be considered dodgy- both are out attempting to have a good time, and if both end up enjoying in bed afterwards then well played to them both. So this we consider OK. Now consider what happens if our girl decides she isn’t particularly interested; she moves on, perhaps heads to get a drink, but our man is still interested and follows her. She starts to find this creepy, and attempts to ignore him, but he is insatiable, continually flirting with her and making her uncomfortable. OK, we might say, so now the guy is in the wrong; she’d not been interested, he should have left her alone. But think of it another way- in the sweaty confines of a dancefloor, he was just another guy and she just another girl, but by following her he had shown genuine interest. Is it wrong for a girl to not settle for the first guy to start hitting on her on a night out, but instead see who has the dedication to follow up his initial advances and try and hold his own in conversation? What if, rather than his continued presence making our girl feel uncomfortable, the conversation continues, and it ends up that both get lucky- in that case, by making continued advances beyond the initial rejection, our guy has been pro-feminist, attempting to go for women other than those so drunk or dismissive of sex that they’ll fall into the arms of the first guy to show any interest. Thus, the shades of grey begin to emerge; at what point do flirtatious advances stop being compliments and start being creepy?

That isn’t even the only confusing feminist topic to be had in the ‘nightclub pull’ situation; some feminists would accuse me of taking a patriarchal point of view by having the guy take the dominant role in the above described situation, arguing (quite correctly) that the idea of a girl being the one from whom sex is sought, of ‘giving out’ sex to those who sufficiently impress her, is a demeaning and objectifying social construct. Others might say that by rejecting the idea (in my penultimate sentence) of girls who are ‘dismissive of sex’, I am guilty of ‘slut-shaming’; the word ‘slut’ is currently the subject of a titanic battle in the feminist community, as it is seen to imply that women should be virginal and pure according to old-fashioned doctrine, and that women are forbidden from simply enjoying sex in the same way men do. In my defence, I turn to a bit of advice I was given once and have held onto ever since; “never have sex with someone who is less interested in it than you”; my issue with the word ‘slut’ is that it is always applied relative to one person’s code of prudishness and implies that someone else’s attitudes towards sex are ‘wrong’. Having said that, it’s true that that penultimate sentence of the last paragraph comes across as judgemental- and I’m writing this specifically to try and be sex-positive and pro-feminist in my attitudes. You see how difficult all this gets; and this isn’t even the most hotly-fought battleground.

In short, modern feminism finds itself attempting to collectively rewrite the world’s psyche with regards to how we all think about women, and attempts to do so without a cohesive idea in mind of what exactly it is after. Scarcely a more ambitious task has been attempted in human history, and most likely it won’t be ‘solved’ for decades to come- indeed, if it ever is. But, then again, there has never been a world as fast-changing and open-minded as our current one. One day, we might be able to use the phrase ‘post-feminism’ a little more honestly.

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…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.

NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.

Today

Today, as very few of you will I’m sure be aware (hey, I wasn’t until a few minutes ago) is World Mental Health Day. I have touched on my own personal experiences of mental health problems before, having spent the last few years suffering from depression, but I feel today is a suitably appropriate time to bring it up again, because this is an issue that, in the modern world, cannot be talked about enough.

Y’see, conservative estimates claim at least 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives, be it a relatively temporary one such as post-natal depression or a lifelong battle with the likes of manic depressive disorder or schizophrenia. Mental health is also in the top five biggest killers in the developed world, through a mixture of suicide, drug usage, self-harming or self-negligence, and as such there is next to zero chance that you will go through your life without somebody you know very closely suffering or even dying as a result of what’s going on in their upstairs. If mental health disorders were a disease in the traditional sense, this would be labelled a red alert, emergency level pandemic.

However, despite the prevalence and danger associated with mental health, the majority of sufferers do so in silence. Some have argued that the two correlate due to the mindset of sufferers, but this claim does not change the fact 9 out of 10 people suffering from a mental health problem say that they feel a degree of social stigma and discrimination against their disability (and yes that description is appropriate; a damaged mind is surely just as debilitating, if not more so, than a damaged body), and this prevents them from coming out to their friends about their suffering.

The reason for this is an all too human one; we humans rely heavily, perhaps more so than any other species, on our sense of sight to formulate our mental picture of the world around us, from the obviously there to the unsaid subtext. We are, therefore, easily able to identify with and relate to physical injuries and obvious behaviours that suggest something is ‘broken’ with another’s body and general being, and that they are injured or disabled is clear to us. However, a mental problem is confined to the unseen recesses of our brain, hiding away from the physical world and making it hard for us to identify with as a problem. We may see people acting down a lot, hanging their head and giving other hints through their body language that something’s up, but everybody looks that way from time to time and it is generally considered a regrettable but normal part of being human. If we see someone acting like that every day, our sympathy for what we perceive as a short-term issue may often turn into annoyance that people aren’t resolving it, creating a sense that they are in the wrong for being so unhappy the whole time and not taking a positive outlook on life.

Then we must also consider the fact that mental health problems tend to place a lot of emphasis on the self, rather than one’s surroundings. With a physical disability, such as a broken leg, the source of our problems, and our worry, is centred on the physical world around us; how can I get up that flight of stairs, will I be able to keep up with everyone, what if I slip or get knocked over, and so on. However, when one suffers from depression, anxiety or whatever, the source of our worry is generally to do with our own personal failings or problems, and less on the world around us. We might continually beat ourselves up over the most microscopic of failings and tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, or be filled by an overbearing, unidentifiable sense of dread that we can only identify as emanating from within ourselves. Thus, when suffering from mental issues we tend to focus our attention inwards, creating a barrier between our suffering and the outside world and making it hard to break through the wall and let others know of our suffering.

All this creates an environment surrounding mental health that it is a subject not to be broached in general conversation, that it just doesn’t get talked about; not so much because it is a taboo of any kind but more due to a sense that it will not fit into the real world that well. This is even a problem in the environment of counselling  specifically designed to try and address such issues, as people are naturally reluctant to let it out or even to ‘give in’ and admit there is something wrong. Many people who take a break from counselling, me included, confident that we’ve come a long way towards solving our various issues, are for this reason resistive to the idea of going back if things take a turn for the worse again.

And it’s not as simple as making people go to counselling either, because quite frequently that’s not the answer. For some people, they go to the wrong place and find their counsellor is not good at relating to and helping them; others may need medication or some such rather than words to get them through the worst times, and for others counselling just plain doesn’t work. But this does not detract from the fact that no mental health condition in no person, however serious, is so bad as to be untreatable, and the best treatment I’ve ever found for my depression has been those moments when people are just nice to me, and make me feel like I belong.

This then, is the two-part message of today, of World Mental Health Day, and of every day and every person across the world; if you have a mental health problem, talk. Get it out there, let people know. Tell your friends, tell your family, find a therapist and tell them, but break the walls of your own mental imprisonment and let the message out. This is not something that should be forever bottled up inside us.

And for the rest of you, those of us who do not suffer or are not at the moment, your task is perhaps even more important; be there. Be prepared to hear that someone has a mental health problem, be ready to offer them support, a shoulder to lean on, but most importantly, just be a nice human being. Share a little love wherever and to whoever you can, and help to make the world a better place for every silent sufferer out there.