Sunday, 14 June 2015

Virgins and Whores, Feminist Men and the Dangers of Custard

Am I a feminist?

I started life as a son to a mother, a nephew to nine aunties and a grandson to a grandma. Soon I became a brother to a sister, an uncle to eight nieces and a friend to many female friends. In adult life I line-managed professional women and looked up myself to a great number of female bosses. Before long I became a husband to a wife and a father to daughters. You betcha I’m a feminist.


How could I not be? I’m a “masculinist” too, or whatever the word might be, and I’ll write about that in future. But equal opportunities starts with the greatest divide on the planet – the gender divide. In my retired dotage I can’t help but reflect that religion bears a massively significant responsibility for fostering unhealthy attitudes to women.

The Two Mary Syndrome

I grew up with the saintly image of a blue-clad Virgin Mary (the apotheosis of other scriptural heroines like Esther, Ruth, Abigail and Hannah) and a second image of a biblical not-so-virginal temptress (Jezebel, Delilah, Potiphar’s Wife, Bathsheba and Herodias – “bad girls” all – that reached their culmination in the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene.)
Abigail, Hannah, Mary, Mary M, Esther, Ruth, Jezebel, Potiphar's Wife and Delilah
During my feverish adolescent hormonal years, I therefore bounced between competing notions of Catholic femininity:
  • the ideal woman who was soft-focus, virginal, motherly and nurturing (Virgin Mary, Perfect “Mother”)  
  • the temptress woman who was alluring, sexy, mysterious and dangerous (Mary Magdalene, Forbidden Fruit)

Even as a child I knew it wasn’t so straightforward.  After all, bad-ass Virgin Mary squished snakes with her pretty feet on those otherwise demure statues – not an action I imagined I could do even now.  And Mary Magdalene got a starring role in the key event of the Resurrection – so she must have been exceptional for God to pick her to be the first witness to the Risen Christ.

Real Women

But the Two Mary Syndrome persisted in the way the media portrayed women: good girl or bad girl, virgin or whore – these ideas were planted long before I even knew what “virgin” or “whore” meant. Yet my own mother fulfilled neither stereotype and my younger sister seemed to be as complicated as the girls at school: brainy, ambitious, dynamic, sporty, courageous, funny, adaptable, independent, quirky, persistent, philosophical, witty, determined, tough, rational, emotional, modest, brash – I could keep going with the adjectives. In real life women and girls seemed to be more multi-faceted than the archetypes offered by the Two Mary Syndrome.


Wrestling with Original Sin has really messed up the Church’s ethos – not bad for a creation myth. How can we blame Eve for losing Paradise? Shouldn’t Adam’s spinelessness be equally condemned? And what about the initial blame being attached to sneaky Satan for offering the fruit in the first place? And God is hardly blameless for setting such a stupid test on the Seventh Day…. Why does Eve get the bad reputation when there were four protagonists in Eden – and three of them were ostensibly men?

Stupid boys, stupid girls

As a teacher I am proud I never let sexist comments from pupils go by. My usual line was to ask a teenage boy spouting offensive language to imagine how they would feel if someone was saying what they were saying about their own mother, sister or daughter. Girls of course can be equally culpable of attaching negative name-calling to other girls who transgress a conservative view of what a girl is allowed to say or do.

The Media

The Media (more than ever it seems to me) sells a very judgmental and discriminatory view of women: physical appearance, clothes and fashion accessories, wealth and style, education and opinion – all are used to mock, abuse and belittle women regularly in print, online, in the music industry, in advertising and marketing, on TV and in Film. Comparisons are often invidious (“before/after” shots, arrows pointing at cellulite and even Woman’s Own (OWN?) screaming on 11th May “Vanessa 2 STONE BIGGER Friends fear she’s drinking CUSTARD again.”)

Erotic Dancer, Supermum, Rescue Victim or Bestial Killer

The pressure can be horribly subtle: features by women aimed at women to “help” improve the quality of life tend to focus on how to look better, do better, be better – all geared up to produce hybrid Two Mary clones – the qualities of a saint but the attractiveness of a (classy?) sex worker. Sexualised dance routines in pop videos, capable Supermums in food advertising, movie characters that fall over and need rescuing. Why were Rudy Guede and Raffaele Sollecito allowed to “keep” their names in news coverage of the Meredith Kercher murder, but the female suspect had to be nicknamed “Foxy Knoxy”?

Where next for Feminism?

Being a feminist in the 1970s and 1980s was a badge of honour among young people but there seems to be an incomprehensible backlash against the word today. Luckily there are high-profile advocates reminding us of what is important. I thoroughly recommend clicking on this link to see Emma Watson’s full speech at the United Nations. As she says: “It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.” There are not “Two Marys” – there are millions of Marys, just as there are millions of “Marks.”