By Louise Haile
… Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…. remember that chant from childhood, along with all those warnings of woods and wolves and innocent Red Riding Hoods? Take a look at the world around us now, and it seems we have now magnified this in media terms and legal focus, into aggressive retribution and historical hounding…our news is awash – almost daily – with new historical charges.
What is going on? In a kind of Alice in Wonderland type of reversal, the power games of status and gain, as well as the gestures – pathetic and otherwise – of attraction, are being equated with sexual crimes and exploitation that are indisputably evil. There seems to be a kind of blindsiding of reality as we have always known it. ‘Time’s up’, runs one of the latest campaigns, aligning itself with the wearing of black – the traditional indicator of sobriety, mourning, and of power. Time’s up on all those old safe assumptions of superiority and exploitation? The parallel reality of unequal pay, nepotism and closed doors with gender and status at the heart of things? We can but wish. The world is changing rapidly around us all, and not least, it would seem, in terms of gender and power issues. But is it real? There seem to be such extremes in the mix, that – far from empowering women, this threatens to rebound on the new-won gains of the last 50 years. What is going on if we allow the trauma of being groped or flashed at, to sit alongside the horror of rape and pedophilia? The outrage of a lewd suggestion, ‘flashing’, a clumsy attempt at seduction….revolting as these experiences are, surely they pale into insignificance in terms of the kind of practices that have prevailed in the past? We need to see our collective collusion in allowing power to dominate in our personal interactions as well as our working lives. ‘The rich have got their channels/ In the bedrooms of the poor’ intones Leonard Cohen, and Shakespeare’s plays make clear that gender and race are the elements that facilitate exploitation and tragedy…( look at ‘Othello’ to see what happens to men – and women – when patriarchal values prevail unrestrained) .
Women seem now to have been given the power to destroy careers – and men are tumbling in all directions. Is this a problem? On one clear level – no. Many vile exploiters of financial and material power have been stopped in their tracks, and many, many more are now re-thinking their disgusting behavior and assumptions about and towards women. This surely has to be the greatest achievement – and yes, in that sense, we can but hope that time is upon unacceptable objectifying and exploitation of women. What is worrying is the potential for a reverse ‘Witch hunt’ – is there a word for it? There seems to be a kind of madness going on, which leaves common sense at the door. What we need now is more – not less –understanding, compromise and mutual acceptance. Why are Shakespeare’s plays rather thin on the ground when it comes to mothers? Precisely because that is the quality that they bring most readily to the debate. Quite simply, lots of outrageous nonsense would have been stopped in its tracks with a mother evaluating the scene. Commonsense evolves out of balance and calm, informed evaluation. Let us not lose sight of what has been gained in terms of equality and fairness in our brave new world. The fact is that the tables are turning now, as women’s earning capacity is – painfully slowly – moving towards that of men. Let us not use power as a blunt force for retribution, but as a stepping stone for a more enjoyable world of opportunities for all. Shakespeare gave us Lady Macbeth and Goneril, as monstrous inversions of the gentle vulnerable victims, Ophelia and Desdemona. Surely we should conform to neither extreme in our fight towards an even playing field? Let’s keep on the watchtower… stay alert and keep pushing for the same material and financial conditions to prevail across gender and race and age… but let’s keep it real. We are all different – and we all thrive – surely? – on our ‘merry war’. Vive la difference!
“I can’t believe I still have to protest this f****** s***”
By Niamh Collins
… I remember, one evening, my mother coming home from a late work meeting. You can immediately tell when my mother has arrived because the house changes, from the lounge you hear her ridiculously heeled shoes on the tiles. Her oversized handbag stuffed with much the same content as a weekend travel bag, arrives in through the door first, as she bustles in, blonde hair flying everywhere, a few stray strands caught in her florescent lipstick which she tries to sweep aside with two full hands. This eruption of noise is normally met with a shrill, ‘what a day!’, excitable ‘hello’ and sigh of joyous relief as she removes the 3 and 1/2 inch heel from her foot, massages it and slams the door with a swift movement of her shoulder. She comes in switches on the speaker and asks ‘Echo’, the new gadget in the house, to play a selection of Elvis, George Michael or country tunes. As I write this I can hear her dancing around the kitchen and whooping at every decent guitar solo. I’ll often join her for a dance to ‘shake the day away’. She called me a minute ago because she couldn’t remember the moves for the Macarena; we blast it on full and we dance it together for around a minute and a half until she collapses into laughter. She’s so impressed with how the wedges have turned out she takes them out of the oven and beams at them, catching me sneaking avocado slices from the salad bowl. We do a twits’ rendition of ‘Cotton-eyed Joe’ and I’ve climbed the stairs, slightly breathless, to finish some work. But that week she’d had a late work meeting at some over-priced London hotel to entertain new clients. She probably would have enjoyed it in her twenties; exclusive restaurant, tasteful food, but getting to London is a bit of a drag now, never as fun as it once was and I know she’s not been looking forward to it, so a slightly dejected arrival was most likely on the cards.
She opened the front door, head bowed low, dumped her bag in the hall, caught my eye and cried. It hadn’t gone well. After walking into the restaurant she had been met with a large table of men, all with at least one drink in them, and some wishful thinkers. From then on it only got worse. More personal, more explicit, more revolting. She’d sat at the table with a frozen smile on her face, forcibly laughing as the remarks got cruder and more repulsive as the evening went on, and no-one said anything. I think that had surprised her the most. A whole table full of men and not one of them said anything as his colleagues jibbed and insulted them. When I picture that moment, the thing that struck me the most was her silence. ‘If it had been me…’ I go to say and then I stop. It wasn’t me. ‘If it had been me, I would have thrown my wine at him, told him where he could stick his contract and stormed off.’ But that is me, sitting on a sofa in suburbia and imagining my passionate defense. My mother is not a quiet woman. She is not known to shy from injustice. But she had frozen. In our minds, we can only imagine our strength in the face of this objectification. We forget the point of objectification is to silence us. And we are too shocked, too embarrassed, too shameful and too terrified to shout back. Someone once gave David Hare a very good piece of advice, “f*** em’, f*** em’, f*** em”, it’s a phrase I think of a lot. Arguably, the best revenge is success, but that’s not enough. There’s no punishment in that. The men she was surrounded by in that room were superior in every way, in their status they had a voice, and they did not use it to stand up for the ‘blonde’ sat by the table who felt too humiliated to say anything.
My mother’s been lucky, if you can call it that, this is one of the few instances where she’s been made to feel inferior in the workplace due to her sex. For others, it’s an everyday occurrence. I’m sure, like every other woman I know, she’s been made to feel inferior in all sorts of domestic and social situations. We all have a ‘me too’ story to share, from intimidation, sexual assault, rape, or verbal humiliation, (not that we should ever league the horrors of rape in even the same category) women and men can meet these challenges at every door. The question, as always, remains, what do we do about it? As Hilary Clinton said in a recent interview when she spoke of the horrific intimidation she felt during the presidential debates, as she responded to audience questions she felt the looming presence of Donald Trump behind her, eyes glued to her head, her preparation had been not simply her responses to economic, social and security questions that might be thrown at her, but to make sure she would not be thrown off by his intimidation tactics. Looking back, she said, I should have maybe turned around and told him to back off. On international television, we witnessed the tactics predatory men use often to demean and intimidate their female subordinates and contemporaries, and now this man is sitting in the most powerful seat of one of the most dominant Western powerhouses.
In show-business, the curtain is being flung open, and behind we see dominant producer Harvey Weinstein, the ‘champion’ of the careers of many Hollywood actresses and actors, be revealed as a predator and pervert who used his wealth, status and contact book to disguise and suppress his years of abusive behavior. The quiet voice that had been rippling away for years about the producers ‘questionable’ requirements during auditions and wandering hands exploded into a torrent of raised voices from his victims. I was not surprised. No-one I know was surprised. Emma Thompson describes Weinstein as the ‘tip of the iceberg’, I believe her. Weinstein is not ‘a monster’. To call him that suggests he is unique in some way, an evil, unrecognizable figure, not part of the human race. No, Harvey Weinstein is a man, a predatory man, and you can find figures like him in every village, town, and city across the world. This topic is hard to pen on paper, I began to muse over it after the Weinstein scandal begun, but every day brought new developments, new women and men coming forward and raising brave voices against other abusers, Spacey and Hoffman to name a few. Men like John Oliver, called out Hoffman over his alleged groping allegations, “I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” Oliver said, “That leads to me at home later tonight hating myself, asking, ‘Why the f*** didn’t I say something? No one stands up to powerful men.” How great to hear raised voices, but it’s action time. The problem, as ever, is blurred lines. Flaws that come with the passing of time, interpretation, ‘my word against his’, provide spanners in the works of true justice. Education, it is my hope, will be the best way to combat the crippling gender divide that still exists. When we raise our children to see that success should be built on merit, passion, and ability rather than one’s gender, that power does not come with the right to abuse it. Each generation leaves a mark on the generation that proceeds it, I hope to God the mark we leave is one of the true meaning of gender equality. We must lead by our example, in Meghan Markle’s words, if we are denied a seat at the table, make our own table. When it is gender that divides us, we all lose out. Both women and men colluded in the protection of Harvey Weinstein and we all need to take responsibility for that. Weinstein has demonstrated that even at the peak of his Hollywood power, the collective raised voices of his abusers have made him into a symbol of corrupt and predatory power. In the history books he will not be spoken of for the careers he championed, he will be spoken of as the man who built his Hollywood empire off sexual abuse and manipulation, and that is what he deserves.
An older lady at the recent women’s march in Washington after Trump’s inauguration stood stern-faced, chest facing out to the crown, a sign hung around her shoulders like the newspaper boys used to wear in the war. Emblazoned upon this sign, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this f****** s***.” Every woman in the march I’m sure felt the same. How on earth can we be in 2018, in a world with driverless cars, new cancer cures, 3D printed organs and still have such scandalous abuses of power? My mother’s boss, after hearing about the behavior demonstrated towards her, ended the relationship he had with that company, another action of an increasing number of men and women breaking their silence; enough is enough. Times Up.