Despite being effectively a matriarchal family, both aware of and affected by sexism, we were royally pissing ourselves at this seemingly sexist joke. As a family, the humour is found not in the inequality insinuated (or highlighted), but in the recognition and tacit rejection of its implications and in the ridiculousness of the sentiment (which exists in stark contrast to family experience). I.e. what a load of bollocks!
It got me thinking.
Our experiences of family (of whatever variety and to whatever extent) shape our perspectives and inform our values (or humour!). Do these experiences and values affect our actions regarding sex and gender, and can they be beneficial?
For my family, mixed or nonconventional gender roles was normal. Lone parenting meant mum as carer, provider, protector and champion. These roles were also expected of us as siblings (6) for one another, regardless of sex. Gender was understood as aside from sex. Be and present how you are and want to (though know not everyone will be receptive). Though physical difference exists, how people feel and present goes far beyond the male/female dichotomy. We all display a range of traits or attitudes socially attributed to either masculinity or femininity. We were shown that woman can do anything, including defying gender expectations or constructs (as can men). Sisters in the military, Mum as the hardest Dad in the playground, and me in pink bunny slippers playing hairdresser attested to that…
Mum also equipped us with an understanding of the inequality, discrimination and oppression so entwined with society and a recognition of the privileges bestowed upon the sexes (with a heavy male weighting). Seeing mum and sisters experiencing a range of sexual discrimination and oppression – from being ignored, cat-called or underestimated to suffering physical and sexual abuse – reinforced this dark truth. I was taught it is never acceptable to exploit my male privilege or biology (i.e. don’t talk over or hit people. But particularly not girls – society does plenty of that as it is).
Nor is it acceptable, whether male, female, fluid or other, to be blind or passive in the face of discrimination or oppression – of any kind. Recognising sexism is one thing, acting against it another. These experiences and values, combined with an open and inclusive perspective on sexuality, coalesced into a familial construction of ‘man’ to be one who (amongst other things) uses their biological difference and social privilege to raise women and girls up, not force them down. These values have translated into my actions as a man in a sexist society, seeking to hear women’s voices (as far too often they are silenced or disregarded) rather than speaking over them; valuing the ideas, contributions or abilities of women rather than undermining them; not using physicality to intimidate, threaten, violate or exploit.
It struck me that whilst we found it funny through subtext and ridiculousness, others would not. But regardless of whether it’s considered funny or not, the facts it represents and the truth to which it speaks, are not.
Women are more likely than men to be killed by an intimate partner, abused, raped or to face physical violence. They are more likely to be a married as a child and to be exploited for sexual slavery. They earn less, work more and are disproportionally affected by environmental and economic changes. They are underrepresented (and misrepresented) in politics, history, civic discourse and have restricted access to civic rights and resources. These instances of structural sexism, whereby the very functions of society contribute to ongoing punishment and subjugation of women, are real and insidious.
‘Everyday’ sexism (the name says a lot…) and structural sexism go hand in hand. Whilst their relationship and effects are complex, they ultimately still happen through the actions (and/or inactions) of people and reside in the minds thereof (as with feminism). Recognising sexism for the dynamic, powerful, dark and pervasive social phenomena that it is, so embroiled and embraced by power, privilege and abuse, seems harder said than done for some; others lest acted upon or challenged.
Social constructs of gender and western notions of ‘man’ and ‘women’ are too infrequently considered, nor questioned. This lack of reflexivity acts as fuel for sexism and oppression. Difficulty is compounded further when intersectional layers of oppression and discrimination, regarding religion, race, sexuality, etc., are considered.
Values learnt in the family environment can influence our actions, and the extent to which we conform to, or defy, sexist society (values are not impermeable to sexism however). As values translate into action, they can act as levees against the tide of individual sexism/discrimination. Although this arguably fails to address structural sexism, familial values must be further utilised in the fight for sexual equality and against oppression.
So, it should be clear that the world is not ravaged by women’s suffrage. Nor is social solace to be found in ‘some guy’.
But statistically, in our sexist society, any legislation or policy to tackle (or perpetuate) sexual discrimination and oppression, is likely to be signed off by… yup, some guy.
And that, is dark comedy in the face of sexism.
By Phil Gurney