Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

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Acting Like A Lady

“Oh, come, come, sweetie. Don’t say those words. Ladies don’t curse.”

“Ladies sit with their legs closed, sweetie.”

“Ladies wait until marriage to have sex.”

“Real ladies don’t wear too much make-up, lest they lead the boys on and give them the wrong idea.”

“Real ladies don’t kiss other girls, because that’s not the right way to get a boy’s attention.”

“Real ladies like girly things, like make-up and shopping and gossip. They don’t enjoy sports or comic books or science fiction.”

Honestly, I could go on and on with these, but I don’t think I have to. Because I think that (especially if you were born female), you’ve heard at least one of these statements before, and probably countless others.

This idea of “being a lady”, being a proper, well-behaved young girl. Some people still say this to children of the genetically female persuasion. Some people still say this to grown women. I know I’ve heard it many, many times; very recently, in fact, I’ve received the complaint that swearing is “not lady-like”.

And I think that many people will defend this idea of enforcing “lady-like” behaviour in girls simply because it’s “proper manners”. Look at the example of telling girls that they need to sit with their legs closed: of course we need to tell girls that, because girls, more frequently than boys, wear dresses and skirts, and it simply isn’t polite for children to be giving you a view of their underwear.

Except, A) children engage in a lot of activity that isn’t polite because they’re children, and B) young girls are also capable of wearing pants, and young boys are never told that they need to sit with their legs closed (for more on this, look up ‘manspreading‘).

And, in fact, a lot of these behaviour that we tell girls to engage in from a young age really have nothing to do with manners. There is no etiquette-assigned reason for why we can’t wear dark eyeshadow or visible foundation. Polite conversation does not particularly care how many sexual partners you have had, so long as you are not going into lengthy detail about them at the time. And there is most certainly no manners-related reason why girls can’t kiss other girls, whether they are doing it because they are lesbians, because they are bisexual, or because they are simply curious and/or experimenting.

So, all of this considered, why do we tell girls this? What does “acting like a lady” really mean?

Well, if I’m gathering information from the above examples, a “lady” is quiet, innocent, virginal, takes up very little space, doesn’t attract too much attention, feminine, and heterosexual. In other words, she is the quintessential passive, submissive woman living under the patriarchy.

And allow me to take a moment to say, “fuck you” to that noise.

Because here’s the thing: women should be allowed to be whoever they are. They should be allowed to make noise without being worried that they will be rejected by society as “unfeminine” if they do. They should be allowed to take up space. They should be allowed to curse and wear make-up and kiss girls and boys and whoever the fuck they want, no matter who gets the wrong (or maybe right) idea about them.

And they should be allowed to do all of this, while still being accepted as valid human beings, rather than the horror stories that we try to steer our children away from.

Because, end of day, what we should be striving for our children and for, ultimately, everyone, regardless of gender or age, is that they have the ability to be who they are. And maybe some of us do fit into the mould of the “lady”; maybe, my nature, some of us are quiet and passive and not the greatest fans of sex or sexuality. But my point is that, while that should most certainly be accepted, so should the opposite. Nobody should feel forced to become anything they are not because society says that they should. Nobody should be pressured to “act like a lady” just because they happened to be born with a vagina. Because not all of us were born as “ladies”, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t women and, more importantly, people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect, or acceptance, or to be taken seriously.

So the next time that you most to correct someone else’s “un-ladylike” behaviour, question yourself; is this behaviour really “un-ladylike”? Or is it merely the behaviour of a different sort of lady?

And, please, never feel guilty for acting in a way that comes natural and hurts no one. A lady can do whatever the fuck she wants, because the beautiful thing about us ladies is that we are all, each and every one of us, different.

The Objectification of Men

Recently, Suistudio launched the campaign #NOTDRESSINGMEN in order to advertise their line of business suits created for women. The images that have been released for this campaign are, in some ways, fairly standard for this sort of product: two people, one dressed head-to-toe in a suit and standing in a position of power and domination, the other posed provocatively, their identity meaningless, their body completely on display. Now, this is an image that we have seen before – many, many times, in fact. Yet, there is one thing about this campaign that not only makes it different, but has caused plenty of controversy, and that is the fact that a woman is placed in a position of power, while a male model is the one being sexualized and objectified.

There are many who have taken to social media to show their disagreement with this campaign, despite the fact that these images are not entirely new. In fact, it is nearly common for us to see the genders reversed. In many advertisements, women are depicted as sexual objects, to the point where we barely even think about it anymore. We’re used to the images of big-breasted women with their heads tipped back and their lips parted. All the time, we see men standing squarely facing the camera, their stances strong, their jaws locked, their power confirmed. This is the language of our media, and we speak it fluently.

But at the same time, the majority of comments that I have seen disagreeing with the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign have not been upset with it because it dares to reverse the gender roles; rather, they disagree with it because they know that this is an injustice that society already does to women all the time, and they don’t think that it’s right to spread this injustice to men as well.

As one Instagram commenter said, “If it was the other way around with the woman on the couch and man above her, feminist groups would jump and criticise. This double standard needs to end.”

Some people have accused this campaign of “making feminism look bad”, turning it into a movement of women who merely want to dominate and control men, rather than being about equal rights. And is this what the campaign is doing? Are these images trying to destroy the patriarchy and replace it with a matriarchy?

Well, the way I see it, my opinion on this campaign rests heavily on the campaign’s intent.

On the one hand, it is very possible that the commenters are correct, and the purpose of this campaign is not necessarily to challenge anything, but rather, to use the accepted language of our media to convey the age-old message, but with the genders swapped. And, in fact, many of the images do seem to be indicating that.

The reason why we often see men standing firm and square-jawed, staring directly at the camera, is because the image is very clearly trying to convey a message, and that message is very connected with gender: he is strong. He is capable. He can do whatever he needs to do, and he can do it without wrinkling his suit or breaking an expression. It just so happens, all of these tend to be masculine traits, and I don’t think that’s incidental. Similarly, when we see women lounging out over objects without much of anything on, that too is meant to convey a message: she is passive, but sexually available. When we see women compared to or used in place of objects, then that is the ultimate passivity: she isn’t even a person, she’s just a thing, waiting around to be used by whoever shows up and wants her.

So when we see the same poses used but the genders reversed, the messages don’t really change, although the gender roles might be challenged. But, still, the photographer is relying on a specific language, one that the viewer will undeniably be familiar with, to convey a message. And the message really isn’t okay. End of day, whether it’s a man or a woman being objectified, the message is that they aren’t really a person. They’re a sexy object, a thing that can be used and disposed of. And not only that, but in both cases, a specific language is being used to convey the message of ‘sexy’ as well; only one body type is displayed, because the viewer will automatically connect that body type to sex appeal. And when that happens, then that dismisses all other body types as being even potentially accepted by society.

So, essentially, if the intent behind this campaign was to rely upon a harmful language that feminism is, in fact, trying to combat, all so that they could convey to their presumably female audience that this company’s suits will make them powerful and alluring to men, then that is not okay.

But there is one other possible intent that this campaign might have, one that I am more comfortable with accepting: the intent to challenge the majority of media.

As I have mentioned, advertisers have made use of sexualizing and objectifying women for decades in order to make their product look somehow superior, and one thing that I think many commenters are forgetting when they show their distaste for the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is that it is only one campaign. It is not an entire industry, meaning that women are not quite at the precipice of taking over the world quite yet. And, more than that, campaigns that rely on switching societal roles are released all the time with the intent of showing just how unfair our society really is.

For example, in 2004, the Disability Rights Commission released a short film called “Talk”, which follows an able-bodied man who suddenly wakes up in a world designed for the new majority, people with disabilities. Another short film, entitled “Love Is All You Need”, takes place in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is looked down upon as “weird” and “unnatural”.

There are many issues in our society that are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around – not because we never experience them, but because we experience them everyday. They are normal to us, so we don’t even second-guess them. And the purpose of media like “Talk” and “Love Is All You Need” is to try to point out just how wrong our society is. It forces able-bodied people to imagine, not what it would be like to be disabled, but what it would be like to live with the stigma of disability. It forces heterosexual people to imagine what it would be like if they couldn’t safely take their partners home to meet their parents, or hold hands with them in public.

And, maybe, the intent behind the #NOTDRESSINGMEN campaign is not to create a new norm, but rather, to force us to question the old one, to make us realize that the over-sexualizing and objectification of women is wrong by forcing us to see it from a new perspective. And, I mean, while I said that there was plenty of evidence in the photographs to suggest the other intention, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest this as well. The photographs, after all, are overly sexual, and overly objectifying, even going so far as to intentionally remove the man’s face from the images, as though to completely remove his identity and force the viewer to look at him only as an object – a body without a soul.

Now, what the company’s actual intent was is difficult to decipher. They have not made any attempt to comment either way, although Suistudio has confessed to intending controversy. Besides that, I suppose that the viewer can merely take what they want from the campaign: are they a frightening image of a new sort of objectification, or an isolated incident intending only to make us question our past and present?

The Difference Between Catcalling and Complimenting

A while back, I made the comment that catcalling is linked to misogyny, perhaps without adequately explaining myself. In response to this, I had someone tell me something that I’d heard before, something that I frequently hear used to explain and excuse catcalling:

“Catcalling is not about misogyny. Catcalling is a compliment.”

I thought about this comment today, when I was catcalled on my way to the gym.

Now, my walk to the gym is not a particularly long one – about ten minutes on a nice day, which today was. I was coming up on the gym’s parking lot, when I noticed a man standing a little bit ahead of me, watching me. Once I got close enough for him to speak to me, he yelled out, “look at this sexy lady with her awesome hair!” I half-smiled, already offended by a complete stranger referring to me as a ‘sexy lady’, but I kept walking, not wanting to start anything. He continued to follow me, yelling at me all the way through the gym’s parking lot, and though I stopped listening at a certain point, I heard enough to know that he compared my hair to his underwear.

Walking ahead of me was a man that I had seen at the gym before, though we had never really spoken. He kept glancing back at me, as though to make sure that the man who was following me never crossed any lines. I was grateful for him and his presence there, because I was fully prepared to yell at him to get help or call the police if it got to that point. As it was, I was just trying to ignore the man, just trying to get to the gym where I knew there would be people and I would be safe.

Sure enough, the man stopped following and yelling at me once I got to the gym.

This is not even the first time that something like this has happened to me. And I know for a fact that I am not the only woman who has experienced this.

And the thing is, I have been complimented before. I know what compliments are, and I know how they make me feel. Truth be told, my hair is pretty unique, so I receive so many compliments on it that my coworker has joked that I should take a shot every time I do.

I have been told by many strangers on the street that they “like my hair”, and then they either move on or start a polite conversation with me, which I am happy to continue. That is a compliment.

I have been told before that my hair reminds them of Storm from the 1980’s X-Men comics, and that since she’s pretty badass, I must be pretty badass too. That is a compliment.

I have heard these from women, and I have heard these from men. These do not offend me. These are not the comments that I am calling out when I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny. But this was not what the man was doing as I was walking to the gym.

Because the distinction here is how I feel coming out of these two scenarios. And perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people get ‘catcalling’ and ‘complimenting’ confused: it is difficult to comprehend the way that one party feels when they come out of a scenario, especially if you do not take note of the grimace and the quickened pace that they are intentionally hiding to protect themselves.

Because when I receive a compliment, it makes me feel happy. I come away a little bit lighter, a little bit more proud of how I look. It endears me to the one who complimented me, because they went out of their way to be polite and make me feel good about myself. They didn’t cross any lines. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. They just wanted to let me know that they liked something about me, and that was their sole intention.

When I am catcalled, I feel uncomfortable. I feel violated and a little unsafe. I might know logically that this man is not going to attack me, but I make sure that I don’t do anything that might displease or encourage him, like telling him to fuck off (which, by the way, is what I want to do), because there is a part of me that is worried that this man might actually hurt me. When I am catcalled, I do not want to continue a conversation with this man. I do not want anything to do with him. All that I want is to make sure that I am in a safe space, surrounded by kindly people with access to phones.

And I cannot imagine that those who catcall intend it as a compliment, because they have to know that the things they are saying and doing cross lines. I cannot see how a man can  meet a woman in broad daylight, out in public, knowing absolutely nothing about who she is or why she’s there, then instantly describe her as sexy (not beautiful, not pretty; sexy) and not expect her to bristle. I cannot see how a man can follow a woman across a parking lot, yelling anything at her, and not expect her to quicken her pace. And I most certainly cannot see how a comparing a woman’s hair to the man’s underwear is even flattering.

The purpose of catcalling is not to compliment; the purpose is to sexualize. The purpose is to establish that he is a great, big, impressive heterosexual, cis-gendered man who can say anything he wants to the small, delicate, passive, submissive presumed heterosexual and presumed cis-gendered woman. If she is not flattered by it, or if she does not accept it, then she is a bitch, quite possibly one who deserves harm done to her (and this is why so few women challenge catcalling when we are faced with it; not because we are secretly charmed by it and playing coy). If the purpose of catcalling was to compliment, then it would not turn into threats and insults at any point, but it commonly does. I can attest to this, as a woman who have had men scream “fuck you” to me for no other reason that walking on the street in broad daylight.

Catcalling does not take notice of the woman who feels threatened by it. Catcalling does not even take notice of the woman as a person. Catcalling is not meant to make the woman feel good about herself; quite the opposite, really. Catcalling is meant to make the woman feel like she could have avoided this harassment if she had dressed a little bit more conservatively, while it makes the man feel that much more masculine, having publicly proven his aggressive heterosexuality to everyone.

When I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny, I am not at all saying that a man cannot tell a woman that he likes her hair or her eyes or her smile without it being offensive; that is not even remotely the case. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because the men who do it do not realize and do not care that the woman in question is a person, or that she feels threatened by him; they merely feel entitled to a certain level of power over the woman, the power to say and do anything they want without question. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because it contributes to women feeling unsafe in the streets, which lends to this cultural idea that women should not be allowed to go in certain spaces, at certain times, with a certain amount of company or dressed in a certain way, because if they violate any of this, then clearly they are ‘asking’ for ‘something’ to happen to them.

There is a difference between approaching someone respectfully, and following them and/or yelling things at them that make them feel unsafe and demeaned as a human being; that is the difference between complimenting and catcalling. And personally, I find it surprising when people do not seem to understand the distinction between these two approaches. Because, to me, as a woman, the difference seems stark. There is absolutely nothing wrong with treating someone as your equal, walking up to them, and verbally appreciating something about their physical appearance. In fact, this is something that we should do more often, because it makes people feel good about themselves, and we don’t have enough of that in our society. But if you are making them feel uncomfortable, if you are clearly crossing lines and/or reducing them to a sexual object rather than a person, then it is no longer a compliment, and it is no longer about them. At that point, it is entirely about you, and your entitlement to be heard taking precedence over their comfort.

The Status of ‘Woman’

Sometimes I wish that I could escape the status of ‘woman’.

I don’t necessarily wish that I could be a man, or any other gender. That isn’t what I’m trying to say. I’m satisfied with the gender that I was born into it, at least enough that I have no problem being referred to by it.

What I mean is, I wish that I could do something publicly, pretty much anything, without having multiple men try and hit on me, or reduce me to my physical appearance. I wish that, every once in a while, I could just be intelligent, rather than ‘hot’ or ‘ugly’.

I wish that, when these men hit on me, they would take me seriously when I say “no”.

I wish that I could make a statement about something without being told that I was a bitch or deserving of some sort of violence. I wish that I could believe in my own rights without being accused of hating men.

I wish that, when I explained things that I’ve studied and researched, people would just take it for granted that I was right. I wish that, when I explained things, men wouldn’t explain them back to me as though I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I wish that I was the one with a ‘bright future’ ahead of me, rather than Brock Turner. Instead, when people look into my future, all they seem to see is babies. They tell men that they have a glorious career ahead of them, and they tell me that I’ll someday have to put aside my passions in order to raise a family that I’ve said, time and time again, I don’t want.

I wish that, if I were raped by a man, they would listen to my voice, rather than take his side without question. I wish that they wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of me, and the best of him.

I wish that I always had the final say in what happened to my body, even if I was pregnant. Even if I decided that I never wanted to get pregnant.

I wish that I took myself seriously. I wish that I could say things with confidence, with the knowledge that I was allowed to have an opinion, and that there were, in fact, many things that I knew how to do better than the average person. I wish that I knew how to express the entitlement that I’ve seen in many heterosexual, cis-gendered men. I wish that society hadn’t beaten that out of me.

I wish that there weren’t people out there who would reduce me to my genitals, or my body.

These are the things that simply make being a woman exhausting.

I am a woman. And I think I speak for all women when I say that that should not diminish who we are. Being women that should not mean that we are taken any less seriously, or that our future is paved in stone by the biological urges we are expected to have.

Because, before we are women, we are people. We are as diverse as any group – intelligent and ignorant and courageous and cowardly and emotional and stoic and nurturing when we need or when we want to be. Our gender does not dictate who we are as people. Just as a man’s gender does not dictate who he is as a person.

And we as a society need to stop seeing gender, first and foremost, when we interact with others. There are too many other things that we can be.