Sometimes it is not the spoken but the whispered threat that is the most menacing. So it is with sexism. While important issues such as the gender pay gap and domestic violence are loudly and publicly condemned, as they should be, it is the undercurrent of misogyny that makes a quiet impact on women every day.
This quiet, unspoken misogyny is in apparent contrast with the dystopia created in award-winning novel The Natural Way of Things.
In the book by Charlotte Wood, women who have been involved in public sex scandals are removed from society and imprisoned on an abandoned property. There they are denigrated, routinely called ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches’ and led around on leashes. By the end of the book, most are broken and become grateful for the crumbs of normality they are thrown.
Of course, the circumstances the characters find themselves in are extreme and shocking. But, what is even more shocking is that there is more than a touch of familiarity in their experiences.
In the daily personal and professional lives of many women, there is a simmering sexism that has endured, despite the many steps society has made towards equality.
It is in words: when men comment on a female newsreader’s outfit, hair, voice or body in a way that they never would about her male colleagues’. And it is when women are labeled bossy, pushy or shrill when her male counterpart would be considered a good leader or self-assured. It is the derogatory nature of the phrases, ‘run like a girl’ and ‘cry like a girl’. And when the father of a Stanford University student convicted of rape blithely labels the act as “20 minutes of action”.
It is in what we see: in the uniformly beautiful women that appear on every television program or advertisement, next to men of all weights and appearances, forcing us to believe that there is only one type of beauty, and only beauty is of relevance for women.
It is in what we experience: in the boyfriend that is holding out on proposing to his girlfriend until she has begged him, repeatedly. And it is the assumption that he has the primary choice in the matter.
All of these examples are small fry compared with the hardships faced by the women in The Natural Way of Things. To call them out would seem petty or ungrateful. After all, we have come such a long way. But these instances, along with so many others, are exhausting. And the truths that they expose are far from benign.
In Wood’s book, at least the women know where they stand – there is no artifice or pretence. The abuse is overt and undeniable and if mentioned or railed against, it could not be denied.
However, the experiences of her characters were clearly inspired by more subtle experiences of misogyny her real life. In an interview about the novel, Wood said she has been asked about where the darkness in her book came from.
“I said, ‘I think it just came from 50 years of being a woman’. As a woman in our culture – and we’re in the luckiest culture to be a woman in – I spend a lot of time closing my ears and eyes to stuff. In a day you come across 10 or 20 messages from everywhere saying what’s wrong with you because you’re a woman – your body’s not right, you’re not good enough to do a job, every bit of advertising and TV culture.”
Some women have found ways to speak out about the more covert misogyny they sense bubbling under the surface of our own ‘civilised’ society.
Clementine Ford highlighted the casual sexism she experienced when she used the hashtag #Questionsformen, urging women to ask men sexist questions that women were accustomed to hearing, but seemed absurd directed at men. Women had many and diverse questions to ask.
“In a job interview have you ever been asked how you will juggle work and home?”
“Are you glad you waited until you were established in your career before becoming a father?”
“Are you able to watch shows with more than two men on the panel without it being dismissed as a men’s show?”
Similarly, the Everyday Sexism project called on women to detail their experiences of misogyny. The project was launched to give women the opportunity to recount their experiences of sexism. Its founder believed that while society believed that equality had been achieved, women still experienced sexism in different ways every day.
Within three years, 100,000 testimonies had been received. Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates said: “The stories came from people aged eight to 80, be they wearing hijabs or bikinis, about sexism on aeroplanes and trams, at home, work and school. You can trace an entire lifetime of gender inequality through the experiences women have shared through the project.”
It is reassuring that women are recognising and speaking out against these instances of sexism. In Charlotte Wood’s book, one of the most frightening aspects is the women’s eventual complicity with their captors. While they are treated like animals, caged and beaten, some continue to preen themselves, painfully plucking hairs from their faces and bodies. They remain subservient despite having a clear weight of numbers, and some even come to pity the men who scorn them. They are not angry about the men complicit in their imprisonment, but miss and mourn their overtures at love.
As a mother of a boy and two girls, I worry about the impact on misogyny on all of them. I fear for my son, that he will not see women as they are – just like him. The nature of the internet and social media emphasises difference between the genders, with its focus on the aesthetic. It is an effect that does neither a service.
And I fear for my girls, that although boys may have been taught by their parents and teachers that women are equal, advertising and media, including social media, tell a different story, and they will be the victims of this narrative – always primarily judged on their appearances or their positions as girlfriends, wives or mothers ahead of the many other attributes I can already see they possess.
Although we have made huge leaps in gender equality, it is frightening to experience a twinge of recognition in the treatment of the women in The Natural Way of Things. Hopefully the light this novel has shined on the undercurrent of misogyny can help stem its flow.