We went wild over Geoffrey Barker’s recent rant about TV journalism’s “babes”. There was considered comment and angry analysis as well as some of the funniest feminist tweeting in recent memory. We were outraged and vocal. But why? Why so much time for so much drivel? What does our outrage really mean?
In the 80s when I was an unknowingly tender young feminist, misogyny was a word not to be used in polite patriarchal company. It was a rude, trenchant and powerful word. It was not the kind of language used by prime ministers. It quietly makes reference to lady parts in Latin. It’s a word that dares to say as Germaine Greer did – to such furious outrage – that there is a hatred of women out there.
In some ways it’s a dream come true that we use this word in polite society. How far we’ve come. And yet something is not quite as we imagined it all those years ago in collectives and on picket lines, out front of all-female factories and child care centers. Something quite substantial has been left behind. In all of our outrage, we appear to have dumped some of the outrageous.
Had you arrived by Tardis to the very middle of my militant lounge room in 1985 to tell every woman present that misogyny was not only now an acceptable term, but one that was being shouted out by feminists around the globe in response to evidence of woman-hating, and by one female prime minister in particular, we would have wept with joy and relief. How many other things would we have to look forward to in our future middle age? For surely this development would herald radical changes in what it meant to be a woman in the world. Surely if we were bandying this powerful word around in the future, then we would be doing so with our hairy legs in the sun, smiling our snaggle-toothed smiles at each other and scratching our graying manes in awe that we had arrived at our utopia: a world where gender was no longer an excuse for an extra load of poverty, violence, grooming and cleaning up.
In this brave new world, a man writing a piece like Geoffrey Barker’s would have left the twitterverse, opinion pages, tram stops and blogosphere largely unmoved, because what he had to say would no longer have a context in which to flourish. There would be no fertile soil in which his ideas could take root, so why worry? If there were still fish to fry, they’d be bigger than this one lonely minnow. What purpose would our outrage serve?
I wish I could tell you that outrage is psychologically helpful, or that it somehow leads to action, or that it’s a sign of something progressive. But there is genuinely very little evidence for this. Most research into outrage points to it as at best a simple signal that our moral boundaries have been crossed, or at worst as a kind of manufactured message to our tribe about our allegiance to their cause. A preaching to the converted in the hopes of feeling like one of the gang. Just letting you know I’m not one of them, I’m one of us.
In the years since 1985, much has been gained by and for women but some things have also been lost. And Geoffrey Barker unwittingly touched on some of what has been lost and it stung. Not just because it was a thoughtless, badly researched, vindictive sexual envy-filled woman and youth hating rant. It also stung because it nudged us in our beauty myth, one of the many things that have not improved for women in the past 30 years. And so many took refuge in outrage because it’s always emotionally safer to express outrage when we feel vulnerable.
Let’s face it. We seem to have lost both the conversation and the battle about beauty. The best we appear to be able to do in response to Barker’s ridiculousness about looks is to be outraged that women are not allowed to be pretty and smart at the same time. Goodness me. Isn’t the reverse what’s really true? That now, more than ever, we must do everything in our power to be as pretty as possible? And not just as young women, but until the day we die?
Outrage is one of our defenses against shame. If the women I see in practice and in my life are any guide, then we are more overwhelmed than ever with the pressure to look a certain way, and more ashamed when we fail to do so.
Research at Boston University found that in the US, women identified four main things they needed to be and do in order to be acceptable as women. These were; to be nice, thin, modest and most importantly, to use all available resources to improve their appearance.
We were busy all those years ago with many feminist causes, one of which was the beauty industry. Who could have imagined that as we rebelled against uncomfortable bras and the irritation of shaving our legs and armpits, that the future would hold such unknown tortures as Brazilian waxing, laser teeth whitening, even higher heels and toxin-derived facial muscle freezing? And we’d been naïve enough to be dubious about eyebrow plucking.
We’ve lost the conversation about body hair, bras, high heels and unconsciously compulsory blonding. Germaine Greer is criticised in the mainstream media for being ugly and old. Feminists in the media talk about their cosmetic surgery believing that to do so liberates other women from a secret shame. It’s as if these things no longer matter. Everyone can be a feminist. Everything is cool when it comes to the body.
Geoffrey Barker has without a doubt joined the ranks of the bimbos deluxe in this latest rant about what’s wrong with television media world now that young excessively groomed women appear to be in charge of it. Unfortunately, our outrage is doing nothing to stem the tide of misogyny. The only thing our flurry of condemnation is revealing is our defence of the secret place of our own discomfort with what it means to have a real body in an increasingly plastic world.
Last week as I lay down on my sticky mat about to try to relax after a punishing yoga class, I handed an eye bag to a woman sitting next to me. She refused sheepishly. Looking up at me with a kind of apology, she told me she’d had eyelash extensions and that the little wheat bags made the new hairs poke painfully into her eyes. How outrageous.
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