Every year from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) until 10th December (International Human Rights Day), we are encouraged to support the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign. I am an activist by nature, and these are issues particularly close to my heart. In fact, I think one of the key factors that fuels my struggle with depression is the knowledge of how many children suffer every day and how helpless I am to do anything about it. So when campaigns like this come along, it doesn’t take much to convince me to join. The problem is what to do. Activism necessitates some form of…well… action. Mere awareness is not enough. But when the scale of the evil is so overwhelming, it is difficult to envisage a way to proactively begin to fight it. I am sure many of you find yourselves in the same position. Short of hunting down an abuser and beating the snot out of him, which is an ill-advised if somewhat enticing prospect, the options appear limited. We recognise the scale and the complexity of the problem, as well as our own inability to make a tangible impact, yet we long to join the battle.
I am convinced that these issues are not problems for only our judicial systems to address. Like any social problem, the factors that sustain it are woven into the ways our societies are constructed, and which – as a consequence – our laws often uphold. Our communities need to take some initiative in combating social injustice. If we want to make a difference, the change has to start with individuals coming to understand that there is, in fact, a problem; that the way things are is not the way things ought to be. And that they are responsible.
I do not normally comment critically on cultures and customs not my own. But American culture dominates our media, and has had a definite impact on South African popular culture. So it is fair to say that I understand America, better than, say, Pakistan or China. I cannot come from a genuinely informed perspective when I speak about Chinese or Pakistani customs, although I am sure that they, too, have their fair share of problems related to systemic violence against women. So I leave that to those who are better positioned to comment there. But, even though I am not American, through my television set and radio, the United States has been a part of my everyday life since I was a boy, and so I do not feel that I am out of place to speak critically of a media that has had a hand in perpetuating a rape culture in my own country.
I was astounded by how many women voted for Donald Trump. His boasting about how many women he had ‘groped’, and the number of women who bravely came forward to testify to how he had behaved “inappropriately” towards them (note the euphemistic language we use to protect males when we talk about sexual assault) should have been enough to discredit him altogether. But when violence has become systemic, when it is deeply embedded in cultural norms, it is not so easy to see. In a rape culture, sexual violence against women is normalised and women are objectified so that their dominant virtue is the extent to which they are able to fulfil men’s erotic fantasies. When Trump’s boasting can be written off as “locker room talk”, and – more astonishingly – this is seen by many as a valid excuse, then it should be clear that there are problems around how society views women.
I love stories. I believe that the stories we tell are instrumental in defining who we become. Now, I am not going to assume that all of you are readers, like me, but I am certain that most of you watch a lot of television and films. I do too. Like many of you, I have been exposed to countless stories. And when I reflect on most of them, it seems to me that the primary function of the main female character is to serve as an object of desire – either for the male character in the film, or for the male film-goer. And recent attempts to offer strong female leads have not changed that pattern substantially. Perhaps we have stopped portraying women as helpless princesses and turned them into skilled warriors, and maybe they no longer need men to fight their battles, but the outfits have not changed too much: costumes still emphasise bums and breasts. Even though the film maker does not overtly promote rape, males in the audience are still being invited to fantasise about it. Even where the attempts to empower women are genuine, the “empowered” woman has simply been endowed with prized masculine qualities (See? Women can also kick ass!); there is no recognition that traditionally feminine qualities have value or power.
Popular music is not much better. When Cheerleader was released a couple of years ago I showed the music video and lyrics to one of my senior classes: half of them could not understand why I found it so repulsive. They thought it was a touching tribute to a woman that she was “always right there when I need her”. They didn’t see the implied ownership in “I found myself a cheerleader”, nor the implicit sexualisation of her in that description. Many simply did not see the extent to which popular music and the accompanying videos reinforce rape culture.
So maybe I should not be surprised by the response to Trump. Unfortunately, locker room talk is normal. But normal does not mean unproblematic. Oppression is always most powerful when it is invisible and normalised, And patriarchal systems are good at hiding the mechanisms that sustain them. When I look back at my youth, I am ashamed of how many conversations I engaged in where we were simply “rating” girls; of plays I performed in where boys, dressed in drag – with an innocent sincerity – portrayed women as infantile or comic, just for a laugh from the (mostly male) audience; of making jokes about women that contained no malice, but nor did they appreciate that women live in a cultural context where there is a constant threat of violence against them, where they regularly have to defend their right to occupy positions of power, something that, as a beneficiary of the system, I have never had to do.
But I am waking up to that reality. It takes a willingness to envisage life from another perspective. How would I have felt had women only ever been interested in me for sex (and if you are male and you just said to yourself: “great”, you are still blind to the systemic violence I have been talking about. Hopefully not for much longer), and if, every morning when I woke up, I felt compelled to dress “attractively”? What must it be like to feel compelled, every time another man enters a room I happen to be in, to subconsciously judge myself by my comparative attractiveness to him? (I confess that I do sometimes; it is awful). What would my worldview look like if cultural norms had taught me that my self-worth was entirely wrapped up in my desirability, and that my highest goal ought to be to be found appealing by ‘The One’? How secure would I feel living in a world where, because women had been conditioned to see me primarily as a means to satisfy a sexual appetite, I needed constantly to be aware that I might arouse the interest of some monster of a woman, who might use me and kill me afterwards? Would I approach relationships differently if there was a very real possibility of being trapped with a beast of a woman who would beat me if it seemed that other women were also aroused by the very desirability that drew her to me in the first place? How frustrating would I find it if others were constantly surprised when I achieved anything noteworthy, because they were incapable of envisaging my attaining anything by merit alone? How would it affect my sense of selfhood if popular culture cast men in predominantly subordinate and demeaning roles? Would I still laugh at jokes that emphasised my inferiority in society’s eyes? Probably not. There is hope for me yet.
I want to offer a further perspective on the matter from Steve Biko, one of the greatest minds South Africa has ever produced, in my opinion. He was speaking about black consciousness, but I think the principle applies to the discussion on sexism too:
“What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce real black people who do not regard themselves as appendages to white society. We do not need to apologise for this because it is true that the white systems have produced through the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people.”
And the better known:
“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”
If I may rephrase Biko’s statements to suit this context: ‘What feminism seeks to do is to produce real women who do not regard themselves as appendages to men. The most potent weapon for the continued oppression of women is the woman’s mind. So as a prelude to liberation, men must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Women must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”
When I see many of the iconic female celebrities being touted as “empowered women”, I cringe. While women like Beyoncé have used the patriarchal system to their advantage, their success is not indicative of any real form of power. Society judges women – physically or morally – virtually entirely by sexual criteria, because physical attractiveness is the only trait society at large genuinely admires in women. Generally, men do not care whether a woman is intelligent or not. They often do not care whether she has compatible values or not. “Should I respect her?” is the same question as, “Would she be suitable for the front cover of Cosmopolitan?” Sadly, that is how many women judge themselves and other women too. And it makes sense: the only real power the patriarchal system grants women over men is sexual. And it is given by default more than design: if men need women to meet their sexual needs, then women have a kind of power if they withhold. But leveraging sexual power to her advantage does not make a woman powerful in her own right. It makes her shrewd, which is laudable, but it is not liberating. The shackles are still there, only she has found ways to be comfortable in them. Until the dominant rape culture is dismantled, women can never be equal. Even if they are paid the same as men and have equal employment opportunities, as long as society constructs women as sex objects, the threat of violence will persist.
I don’t know what I can do to counter a culture that promotes violence against women. I cannot change people. But I know that people can change themselves. And that journey starts by seeing the world differently. I want to suggest a simple exercise: watch a favourite music video or television programme or film, recasting every character in your head so that the men are women and the women men (or, for that matter, so that white people are black and black people white). Do it for a few more songs or films or programmes. Start looking for patterns, and document your thoughts and feelings. Make the invisible visible. For reference, this South African advert does just that, and is very provocative in terms of examining problematic constructions of race. Let me know what you discover.