I’m a bad feminist.
Too preoccupied with day-to-day hardships like having to get up and wash myself and eat and work and things, more often than not I only deal with questions of gender equality as and when they come up, on the fly.
I must give myself credit, though – in my job, they do come up fairly frequently. and I do make an effort to challenge discriminatory behaviour whenever I witness it; whether it’s calling out a kid using the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘rubbish’, or – more often – a colleague using sexist language.
It’s only a small effort, and I wish I could do more. The truth is, the environment I’ve been working in for the last 10 months is shockingly sexist. It’s at an independent boarding school – formerly a boys’ school but co-educational for long enough to make the archaic attitudes of some to be truly stomach-clenching. As is still a trend across the education system, the number of female teachers outnumbers that of male teachers, and yet all but one of the senior leadership team is male. I don’t mean to imply that I think competent women have been passed over for those jobs – I’m well aware of the other factors that lead to this kind of imbalance. Women tending to take time off or go part time in order to raise children, women lacking the confidence in their own ability and not putting themselves forward for promotion, men feeling pressure to earn more money to support their families when their wives take time off to raise children.
I’m not saying I think any of these tendencies are RIGHT, what I’m saying is that they HAPPEN. They are part of the invisible expectations that most of us simply take for granted when they are presented to us as being the NORM in our patriarchal society.
Boys outnumber girls quite considerably at this school – roughly 3:2 (I’m talking cisgender here, although there’s one openly trans girl that I know of. She’s a day pupil. I’m not sure the boarding system would show much inclination to accommodate her needs, should she wish to stay a night). The institutional sexism I’ve observed begins in the uniform policy. Girls MUST wear a skirt and boys MUST wear trousers. Girls MAY wear one set of earrings and MAY wear their hair long, provided it is tied back. Boys MUST NOT wear an earring and MUST keep their hair cut short. I’m not sure who will be harmed if boys wear earrings and have long hair, although there has of course been a terrible decline in society since such things became acceptable in wider society that I’m sure the school has ample justification. Dogs and cats living together, MASS HYSTERIA.
Anyway, I don’t want to get too deep into that just here. I will just mention, however, that I don’t think it helps that the SLT is so disproportionately male. I think that’s silent reinforcement of the INCORRECT idea that men are more suited to senior roles than women are, and that it’s seriously problematic to have that kind of reinforcement of a negative idea in a coeducational facility. We’re supposed to be encouraging young people to succeed, while silently demonstrating that the contents of your underwear matter more than your GCSE results…
Last night, I was on duty in a girls’ boarding house. Normally on a Friday, the girls choose a film to watch instead of doing homework, and I sit in the office pretending to work (but really refreshing Twitter every fifteen seconds and feeling glum that all my friends are doing interesting things on a Friday night instead of supervising 30 surly teenagers), but last night I thought it would be nice to show them a classic film: The Breakfast Club. This American Life posted a podcast last week which contained an interview with Molly Ringwald about watching the film with her ten-year-old daughter for the first time. It’s a moving episode and I recommend it to anyone who has ever enjoyed the film.
If you don’t know the film, watch it now. It’s a day in the lives of five teenagers in detention on a Saturday. They are set the task of writing a paper about ‘who they are’, and over the course of the day this is what we find out. We learn the reason why they are in detention, and about the pressures and strains each of them experiences. There’s a jock, a nerd, a weirdo, a prom queen, and a criminal. In the simplest terms. But since when did life obey the simplest terms?
What makes the film wonderful is how unique and yet how similar each of the (white, straight, cisgender, more-or-less privileged – as I said to the girls, it’s nearly 30 years old so bear that in mind when there’s the odd bit of homophobia) kids really are. They all have strengths and flaws. They all have parts of their life that are ‘dissatisfying’ (to a greater or lesser extent). They all experience pressure from someone or another. They all deal with challenges every day and sometimes they fuck up. And none of them has a straightforward relationship with their parents.
So, watching the film with a bunch of teenage girls was pretty interesting. They interpreted it in a different way to me, which I guess is natural … However, I was a bit dismayed by the predominant response. Almost all the girls spent the 100-odd minutes drooling over John (with the exception of one, who preferred Brian), and were unanimous in their opinion of Alison (“why does she have to be so weird!”). However, most of their antagonism was aimed at the “princess” character, Claire (“oh em gee she’s such a bee”).
Now, considering the demographic of the girls watching the film, I thought this was pretty disheartening, to tell you the truth. Sure, Claire has flaws, and she is pretty self-centred: “I’m so popular …”
BUT, the way she behaves has a lot to do with her situation and the pressures that are put on her (in her case, by her friends). Compared with John, whose rape joke really makes me wince, or Andrew, who admits to mindlessly bullying another student, how does she come off the worst? And is she really any more conceited than Brian, who thinks he’s a better person than Claire but is pretty dismissive of the kind of kids who take shop?
As far as I’m concerned, the kids are just kids, dealing with stuff, making mistakes, learning from them, moving on. All of them do or say something utterly shitty, and all of them do or say something totally compassionate. So yeah, I was pretty dismayed when the girls I watched the film with were much more critical of the female characters than they were the male characters. It kind of made me think that their background is less forgiving of flaws in women than it is of flaws in men.
Or maybe it’s a good thing that they have high standards. I dunno. I’m gonna stop thinking about it now and make some tea.
Oh yeah, speaking of breakfast, Teleman’s album is finally out so join the Breakfast club yourself by getting a copy: