One of the most pressing and publicized ‘difference’-related injustices – we’ll get to that in a minute – is clearly that of sex and the ways in which male and female identities function in modern day consumer capitalism. It should be noted here, however, that the topic is so vast that of course, I must make generalizations based on patterns rather than specific instances to the contrary which are likely to be the minority of cases. As mentioned earlier, my frame of reference will be that of “‘difference’-related injustices” by which I mean not that women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, disabled people are inherently ‘different’ but rather to refer to groups who are outside the capitalist supremacy, namely that of white cis-bodied straight able males.
So, let’s dive in with one of the most widely publicized issues on the matter, that of the gender pay gap. Interestingly, in Western countries like the UK and the US, there remains a wide disparity in the overall earnings of men and women, despite their salaries, on the whole, being an equal rate of pay. Generally speaking, men and women are paid the same base rate for the same position at the same company. So if men and women are paid the same, surely there’s no problem? I wish, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Though salary is crucial in ensuring that males and females achieve financial parity, social factors play a huge role in determining one’s life earnings.
The infographic above picks out and highlights key social factors what lead to women being paid less on the whole than their male counterparts.
To really get to the bottom of the issue, we must examine how and what a woman is conceived as and how this might affect her behaviour. As Simone de Beauvoir famously put it in The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. To this day, women conform to traditionally ‘female’ roles which often have a nurturing or passive aspect to them, perhaps accounting for why woman are overrepresented in ‘caring’ professions. Though of course women are not subject to the same kind of pressure as of the past where childbearing was an inevitability, there remains an unspoken assumption that this is the past that most women will take. Typically, men advance within their careers not because they are generally more capable, but because women take more time out from work to balance a home life and a career. More part-time jobs are taken up by women as well as time off for maternity leave and childcare. What initially seemed like a simple problem is evidently more complex than it first appears.
So, who or what is to blame? Is it rich, sexist business executives who’d rather not have to work alongside anyone not wearing a tailored suit and tie? Is it the government’s fault for not putting in place adequate measures to support working women? Annoyingly, there is no simple answer. Rather than looking for a specific party to blame, someone or something with a face, it might be worth taking aim of the structure of society itself. Capitalism engenders competition, creating and maintaining antagonistic relationships. In this particular scenario, women (with notable exceptions) are the losers in this game.
Much has been said recently too about the media’s role in the construction of gender and the implications for sexual and gender identity. As cliched as the example is, I will be bringing in the example of gender-oriented marketing targeted at young children, usually through thematic advertising or colour coding. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. A National Geographic article references the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sweet from the university of California, who has written about how the marketing of toys – previously heavily gendered – became more neutral with the rise of second-wave feminism. The tides were turned, however, with the 1980s where marketers saw an opportunity with ultrasound technology whereby parents were able to tell the sex of their child before birth. With the turn of the 21st century, this trend has only become more pronounced.
Crucially mentioned is the effect on the psychology of the child as they grow to adulthood. Toys that encourage “spatial thinking”, according to a 2012 report by Susan Levine, are both those that are generally marketed to boys and those that are important for “executive function” or “higher level thinking”, Levine using this evidence to explain for the “underrepresentation of women in science and tech”. This, however, is only on example of how capitalism manipulates the concept of gender to achieve the greatest prophet at the cost of its consumers. Boys fare no better than girls in this matter, for when young men feel as though they must rigidly conform of one definition of what it means to be a man, they inevitably suffer. The traits that corporations deem ‘masculine’, such as independence, strength, competitiveness and being emotionally distant are clearly not conducive to happiness when their implications are taken at face value. Neither are those deemed to be ‘feminine’, such as obedience, passivity and being overly-emotional.
Admittedly, the issue of gender identity and the myriad biological and cultural factors that contribute to it is vast and I wholeheartedly accept that I am making sweeping statements that will not apply in many cases. To be sure, I am out of my depth. For many of us, however, this is an important way of analyzing how we’ve processed the social and cultural signals sent our way over our lifetimes and of how we’ve understood and internalized them. On the whole, being gendered in this way does not make us happy. Capitalism is one factor contributing to these gender norms. Capitalism does not and will not make us happy.
The end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 have undeniably heralded a pivotal moment for the international women’s movement. What with the recent sexual harassment scandals involving key figures such as the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and sports coach to the stars Larry Nassar, the world is gradually waking up to the everyday injustices faced by women. What these high-profile cases demonstrate is that even women in positions where we might consider them to be, to a certain degree, untouchable are affected by the suffocating embrace of a society based on patriarchal values.
In recent months, the world has borne witness to the emergence of popular social media hashtags such as #TimesUp and #MeToo that aim to promote female solidarity in the face of aggressive misogyny, particularly in the workplace where men in positions of power are able to take advantage of their more vulnerable female colleagues. In 2017, hundreds of accusations of sexual harassment and assault were leveled against the film production giant Harvey Weinstein, sending shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry. In sport, Larry Nassar has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of female athletes, many of them underage, with more than 265 women testifying to that effect. Even the U.S. president Donald Trump has been branded a misogynist due to his consistently offensive and inflammatory comments about women dating back to the 1980s. Some have compiled them to exhibit them in a way that demonstrates just how alarming his attitude towards the Second Sex actually is and how his hostility towards women goes far beyond his “grab ’em by the pussy” interview, most commonly undermining a woman’s political or professional capability and giving his unsolicited opinions on her appearance.
Despite these scandals, however, the women’s movement has undeniably made significant progress, noticeably in the UK and the US among other countries that should not be overlooked. We have reached a key turning point where women’s voices are increasingly being made to matter as the Weinstein case only serves to demonstrate. Where these same victimized women would previously advised to remain silent, they are encouraged to speak up, slowly challenging and dismantling the crippling attitude of the past. Nowadays, there is more of a zero-tolerance policy to unacceptable behavior, crucially manifesting itself in the way that women are able to identify and challenge discriminatory behavior. What once might have been dismissed as par for the course, in line with the philosophy of ‘boys will be boys’, is being treated with the urgency and severity it truly merits, which indicates a profound cultural shift in our perception of what is means to be female. We, as women, have intrinsic value and agency which should be reflected in all areas of our personal and professional lives, many now prepared to publicly name and shame those who seem not to have got the memo. Since then, we have seen what has been termed the ‘Weinstein Effect’, with many more cases of similar misconduct coming to light after the landmark case opened the jar to a giant can of worms.
While this loosening of tongues is clearly a step in the right direction, it has some unpleasant side-effects, the principal one being that it shatters the comfortable illusion that feminism is becoming unnecessary, even obsolete in a society that pays lip-service to equality. All of these horrific and disturbing cases shine the spotlight on what we’d rather not see or acknowledge, that being the unsolved problem of gender inequality. In January, it emerged that a men-only event took place in London hosted at the President’s Club, dubbed “the most un-PC night of the year”. Hostesses were required to wear tight-fitting black dresses and heels to cater to powerful male businessmen, many of whom were accused of inappropriate behavior towards the women present. The flurry of news stories that came afterwards were shocking, many incredulous that this type of behavior and culture are still around in 2018, though should we really be so surprised? To look on the bright side, however, while the event itself shows how long the journey ahead still is, the public outcry that succeeded it shows just how far we have come.
Now, the conversation needs to translate into the lives of everyday women. So far, the debate has arguably been dominated by a select group, namely wealthy white Western women who, while they may be doing great work, are not representative in any way of all women and the huge variety of difficulties that they face. It will take much more than a privileged few who have little to lose donning expensive and glamorous black gowns and tweeting a few hashtags to really change things. We need to recognize the vital importance of intersectional feminism as it is the only way to truly support and further the interests of all women, particularly across racial and gender divides. The actress Rose McGowan, for example, has recently been criticized for failing to acknowledge this diversity of experience, a classic case of denying the problem exists if it doesn’t exist for her, though it most certainly does. White women, for instance, have benefited most from affirmative action, the playing field far from level for women of color. Liv Little, the founder and editor in chief of gal-dem magazine puts it well in a Guardian article, asserting that:
“We need to start by trying to empower the women with the biggest number of intersections, rather than white, middle-class women, who probably have the fewest gaps when it comes to their opportunities versus those of white men. We need to do better when it comes to the inclusion of trans women’s experiences and those of women who are not cis and able-bodied.”
So far, the spotlight has been on a select number taking to social media and other campaigning platforms, though this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Guardian shines light on standout cases around the world, with Spanish women going on strike for the day to mark International Women’s Day. Hundreds of South Korean women are taking to the streets wearing black to support the #MeToo movement in Seoul. Thousands of female aid workers across the world have composed an open letter to push for reform in the sector.
So, this International Women’s day, while we should recognize and be proud of the progress that has and is being made, we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. It would be utterly premature to pat ourselves on the back as there are still still formidable obstacles for ordinary women to overcome across intersections such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. While things might have improved for a portion of the population, there are still many for whom this apparent progress is still not being felt. Today should be a celebration of all women and of how far we’ve come, but also a reminder that there is still a hell of a lot to push on with.
It was only after a friend pointed out that my wardrobe was slowly beginning to look like a collection of cast-offs from from Clueless that I really considered how much I love the colour pink. Dusky, pale and delicate, I can safely say that I am going through my pink phase now as an adult, having missed out on one as a so-called ‘tomboy’ child.Though it is arguably a much misunderstood colour, I would like to come to its defence against popular opinion to maintain that the colour pink is an empowering symbol of the feminine that I, as a female, am proud to show off. In abstract, pink has far more positive connotations than one might originally think; psychologically speaking, for instance, it is associated with tenderness, love and compassion, hugely important and valuable characteristics for anyone to possess. We are doing ourselves a disservice by disassociating these qualities with masculinity, carelessly conceiving of gender in binary categories with little thought to the effect on the mental health of those exposed, young children being particularly vulnerable to such black-and-white thinking.
Admittedly, pink can indeed be representative of an unhealthy version of femininity, particularly in regards to the way that products and lifestyles are marketed to young people. It is no coincidence that pink gender-oriented products are intended for girls and often endorse a problematic interpretation of what it means to be feminine, the emphasis placed on passivity and unassertiveness, even fragility by implication. The industry is dominated by of princesses, unicorns and plastic babies, only furthering the promotion of the values listed above. In recent years, there has been much coverage of the issue of prescribing lifestyles and behaviours on the basis of biological sex, often to the detriment of mental health and self-image. Arguably, however, it is not pink that is the problem, but society’s perception of the nature of femininity, it being entirely possible to reclaim this misunderstood colour to be a symbol of empowerment and strength rather than humility and submissiveness.
Pink is the colour of Japan’s world famous cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ which draws visitors from all over the world to admire its beauty and transience. Pink is the colour that flooded my cheeks after my recovery from life-threatening anorexia, a signifier of my regained strength and health. Indeed, pink is the colour that the thousands of women chose to wear as hats at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the largest single day rally in the history of the US that united women across boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and religion. In the past, even, pink was a colour intended for boys as it was the more ‘vibrant’ shade said to denote strength and vigour.
What symbols represent is relative and often determined by one’s cultural reference point, hence there a flexibility to them that allows for diversity of meaning. Contrary to Western ideas about the benevolent sun and the “jealous” moon, for example, the Bacongo of Angola believe, according to Jogn S. Mbiti, ”the moon is the place of coolness and happiness where good men go after death; and the sun is the place of punishment for the wicked”. Naturally, symbols often have a flipside, much like the colour pink as a symbol of femininity; yes, as a female I can be empathetic, I can be tender, I can be caring but I can also be vibrant, full of strength, love and self-belief.
It’s possible, then, that pink is so divisive a colour because it is a symbol of the conflicted and complex way women are viewed in society. Socially, pink has become representative of the feminine whether you like it or not, making the issue about how this symbol is to be interpreted. Yes, it can have a crippling and detrimental impact on the way women see themselves and their purpose in life when it is aligned with crippling and detrimental views about the role of women. In like manner, it becomes empowering then it is interpreted as encompassing all of the positive aspects of femininity.
As someone who works in retail, I come to interact with people on a daily basis, not only to help them with their weekly shop but also to be a listening ear for many people who otherwise would have no social outlet. It is inevitable, then, that I come to meet people who hold views vastly different to my own, a positive thing though not without its difficulties. In the past, I have met a middle-aged woman who, when praising the Austrian burqa ban, remarked that “you never know if they’ve got a bomb under there”. Another woman, when telling me how offended she was to have been followed around the shop by an Asian member of staff who suspected her of stealing, told me of how she mocked them, asking her “you no speaki inglese?”, related to me in a whisper as a black customer was walking down the aisle we were standing in. Examples such as these are no doubt symptomatic of ignorance and circumstance, yet here what I want to explore is my own complicity in the situation when I remain silent. In both instances, I didn’t challenge the women, didn’t even raise an eyebrow, I am ashamed to say, as I feared being told off later by my boss.
Reflecting now, I would say that this cowardice is inexcusable as it facilitates the perpetuation of this toxic problem. These people feel comfortable saying these things to me because I appear to be ‘like them’ i.e. I am a white British female, hence they feel I am familiar, an ally. In remaining silent, I only reinforce this view, maintaining the idea that those of the same tribe, so to speak, are allied to each other, easily remedied by challenging them to shatter this illusion.
In remaining silent, I am essentially shirking the responsibility for solving the issue, leaving it up to those who are the victims of ignorance and intolerance. Can one really be said to be not racist, not sexist, not homophobic if they passively allow these problems to worsen, even if they do not actively contribute to their intensification? Is it really enough to be ‘nice’ to others when this has no real effect in combating the root problem? If one were to watch someone being mugged, for example, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the responsibility for resolving the situation lies with the victim instead of the silent bystander; in the same way, it is ridiculous to suggest that the buck stops with the receiver of the abuse alone.
Clearly, then, remaining silent is an ethically inexcusable act, the implication being that I did wrong when I didn’t challenge these customers. In the same way, society does wrong when it doesn’t confront these issues head on but claims to be liberal and unprejudiced. Next time, I will definitely be tackling this bigotry rather than feeling a vague sense of guilt in remaining silent as it seems obvious that this is the only moral reaction to an immoral situation.