Striking blows for gender equality used to be an intimidating undertaking: you’d really have to pull out something major. Hunger strikes, dying after being felled by a horse at the Derby, skinned alive with oyster shells – it’s understandable why most would decide: “You know what, I won’t.” Other options not involving death were going undercover as a Playboy Bunny, taking part in violent protests, or being imprisoned for refusing to keep quiet about injustice.
These days? Almost anything can be claimed as a feminist act, and frequently is. Hell, I’ve already completed three Acts of Feminism today (going by current standards of measurement) – and that was before breakfast.
And you can do it too! Here’s how to gauge whether what you’re doing is feminist and important, or not. Ask yourself: have a wave of media commentators gushed over Lena Dunham, Alicia Keys or Cara Delevingne doing it recently? And have many people got very aggravated about it at the same time? They have?! Then it follows that you are likewise a disrupter of societal mores, empowering women every day – up there with bell hooks and Ada Lovelace. Future generations of feminists will thank you for your sacrifices, and your bravery.
We’re told – ad nauseam – that Dunham is a feminist icon because she wrote a show that has female leads and sex in it. Even more important than that: sometimes she takes her clothes off while simultaneously being chubby. The world is amazed and also very angry every time she does this. For those who call her a role model, the novelty of these acts has even overshadowed racist tweets, and uncomfortably racist essays about her time in Japan. “Wow, she’s so fat and naked right now,” many gasp with wonderment.
Keys has sparked feelings of gratitude because she’s been pictured at awards shows without a full face of makeup. Yet others are so angry about her decision that the singer has felt the need to make it clear that she’s not “anti” makeup, as though we live in a reality where cosmetics have feelings that Keys could be hurting by not associating with them any more.
Delevingne has been lauded as empowering to women because she contorts her face and sticks her tongue out during red-carpet events instead of smiling demurely. Plus, she ate a pizza in public once. That makes her “quirky” and worthy of note.
Wearing pants, and then not wearing pants; walking around with a face; taking in life-sustaining fuel – can you do that? Would you dare to do any of that, while being female, at the very same time? Well, gee! You do that every day, or you know someone who does and you haven’t karate-chopped them in the neck in retaliation. But no one is loudly acclaiming you for it. There are no ahhs of amazement as though you’re a pet hamster who’s suddenly executed a triple backflip while reciting the spoken-word bit of Shake It Off.
Reactions of shock and amazement play out in smaller ways for females here on the ground, going about their lives: perhaps a look of discomfort from someone, any gender, who didn’t expect you to be talking or acting that way, because they’ve taken in the lesson that women just don’t do that, or shouldn’t; or you didn’t take the time to blowdry your hair to an acceptable standard, and you’re looking like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler; or you talk too tough, and you laugh too loud.
Women may not be gifted a rulebook on how to act in public with “don’t dress like a slob, don’t laugh ugly, don’t eat pizza” directives, but the celebration of behaviour that dares to go against these unwritten rules is controlling and prescriptive in its own way. What’s frightening for me is that the rules are so ingrained that they can continue on, invisible.
The “Finally, I feel confident in my body at 46!” magazine covers featuring a naked female TV personality don’t excite any feminist fervour within me, or reassure me. I do not feel grateful for women doing this, and the furore that flurries up is insulting. Flabby nakedness happens, so does eating, so does looking like crap – it’s the human condition, whatever your gender. Something as vital as equality shouldn’t be confused with things so trivial, unless we all deserve a Nobel peace prize for eating greasy food and snort-laughing sometimes.