The Ghost of Sexism Present

When you’re of a mind to set the world to rights, even listening to the radio can be fraught with danger. Having resisted the pull of commercial TV and radio for a quarter of a century, I finally yielded. Contemporary music criticism has been done more elegantly by more knowledgable writers elsewhere, so let us just conclude that swapping a non-commercial station for a commercial one was ultimately trading one set of frustrations for another.

I’d managed to successfully limit my exposure to awful music, but had opened myself up to a whole new world of problems: radio advertising. Eschewing my local station for a national one took off most of the rough edges, particularly when it came to maddening double-glazing jingles, but it was while listening to aforesaid national digital station that I encountered the Ghost of Sexism Present.

Plunged into my own Dickensian fantasy, I quickly assessed my surroundings; the Ghost of Sexism Past faded away with the passing of grubby seaside postcards, the miniskirted typist-cum-secretary and woeful situation comedies; in short, around the time the ’70s surrendered to the rampaging ’80s. The Ghost of Sexism Future, more’s the pity, does not limit its moaning and chain-rattling to the company of women. Instead, as did Dickens’ rosy-cheeked host, it spreads its arms wide and cries “come forth, and know me better, man!”

This restless spirit, made bold by years of uncorrected manifestations and liberally sprinkled phantasmagoria, approaches both men and women with equal vigour. It’s subtle, though, and has distinct approaches for each gender. Its main failing, as with so many bad teachers and politicians, is that it tries to tell us what, and how, we should think and feel. This afternoon, as if to demonstrate its multiplicity, it taunted me with whispered tales of spent headlight bulbs in the darkening autumn night.

It told me that I wouldn’t be able to change the bulb – not because of my feminine dearth of technical skill, but because my nails – obviously long, and immaculately lacquered – would weaken and break the very second I lifted a screwdriver. Apparently this is undesirable. Speaking as someone that frequently uses their thumbnails as a makeshift flathead screwdriver for the purposes of spectacle repair and basic home maintenance, my suspicion was piqued from the start.

Next, as if sensing my mistrust, it endeavoured to convince me that my husband – which I don’t actually have – would be unwilling or unable to do the job for me. Because of course, as a helpless princess awaiting rescue with attendant melancholy, only a man could possibly fix my car for me. Whether it was due to fecklessness, laziness or technical ineptness, my husband would never fix my car. Of course he won’t; like I said, I don’t have either.

But, as with Scrooge’s ghosts, this entity’s message was one of hope as well as foreboding:  a modern-day white knight could fix the thing for me. He would do this on the condition that I return to my house (haven’t one of those, either) and remark to my pseudo-husband that I’d found “a real man” to complete the Sisyphean task that so far had defeated both of us. Joy! Jubilation! Some orange-clad spanner with a spanner can suck his teeth at me and charge me a nominal fee for performing a chore that my obligatory feminine beauty rituals had until now prohibited me from achieving! Sing Hallelujah, and pass the bucket…

The job of feminism today is basically as it always was; to achieve parity and equality between the sexes. It must achieve this in every sphere of our lives; from the workplace, to the bedroom, to the TV screen. And at the same time that it combats pay and hiring discrepancies, social expectations, threats to healthcare provision, sexual aggression, domestic violence, genital mutilation and wrongheaded laws, it must also manage the hinterland between the experiences of Team XX and Team XY.

When women first cried out for equality, they were addressing the gulf of power and possibility that existed between men and women at a time when, if you wanted to get your entitled male hands on a woman’s property, you could simply have her conveniently shipped off to the nearest insane asylum. While we have made headway enough to allow us to own property, we’re still insulted when it comes to obtaining more or maintaining what we already possess.

I don’t believe that all men, as a symptom of being “a bit blokey”, are truly feckless, impractical, selfish and lazy, any more than I believe that women really are all vain, duplicitous, gossipy and obsessed with ‘naughty’ food and effective cleaning products. But this is what advertising says to us, and I resent its malicious whisper. The cry for equality, now and in years gone by, was an effort to improve the lot of everyone involved, men and women both.

Had I been born male, I would have resented the implications made about me as surely and as strongly as I do having been born female. When we push to attain an equal footing, we aim for higher ground, not the reeking swamp of mutual negation. The aim should be mutual improvement, not the denigration of both. In literature and film, we use prayer and religious iconography to lay restless spirits; in reality, our toolkit is different, but no less important. Words, balanced, thoughtful and tenacious, are our holy water and crucifix. The power of Christ may not compel advertisers, but the power of popular opinion certainly can.

Each of the spirits that visited Ebeneezer Scrooge vanished again within the course of one Christmas Eve. Can we expect our restless phantom to disappear overnight? No, I fear not; but we can tear away the clanking chains and unmask it like the Scooby-Doo schmuck it really is.

Originally published Monday, 15 October 2012

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