I don’t care if you like it (guest post by Marianne Elliott)
Marianne Elliott is a writer, human rights advocate, and yoga teacher. Brené Brown called her “One of the best teachers I’ve ever experienced … a beautiful writer and a courageous truth teller.” Marianne writes and teaches on creating, developing and sustaining real change in personal life, work and the world.
Last year I spent most of five months travelling through the US, Canada and Europe talking about my book, ZEN UNDER FIRE. At almost every book talk I gave, someone would ask me, ‘Weren’t you afraid to be in Afghanistan, such a dangerous country for women?’
My standard answer was that all countries are dangerous for women.
In Afghanistan I helped document more than 400 case reports of violence against women. They made me sad, mad and sometimes scared. But I also saw that they were not so different from the cases of violence against women I’ve documented or read in New Zealand, or in the US, or Canada, or Australia.
Why make the point about his happening everywhere? Why not just talk about violence against women in Afghanistan?
Because I wanted to own it.
I wanted to avoid the human tendency to want to believe the really ugly shit belongs to some place and someone else. I was saying, ‘This doesn’t only happen over there, it happens here too. It doesn’t only happen to someone else. It happens to us too.’
As my book tour continued, stories kept appearing across the US and Canada. Stories of girls who had been raped, blamed, shamed and shunned. Stories of boys who believed they had done nothing wrong. Stories of entire towns that stood in support of their ‘decent boys’ who had just made a stupid mistake. Stories that were as painful, to me, as anything I’d seen in Afghanistan.
Then I returned to New Zealand to more stories of girls and women being shamed and blamed for being raped. Stories of boys boasting on Facebook about the girls they had raped, and those girls being asked by police officers what they had been wearing at the time, or whether they had been drinking.
At a more subtle level, I saw women being judged for their dress sense, their looks, their figure, who they had or hadn’t slept with. I saw mothers judged for their choices to work, or not to work. When’s the last time any of us heard a man asked why he bothered having children if he was just going to keep on working?
Over and over again I saw that I was living in a world that was often hostile to women.
I asked myself: Where does this come from? How is it allowed to carry on? What can I do about it?
Recently I launched an online campaigning organisation in New Zealand. Last week some of our members suggested we run a campaign in response to a TV host sexualising and trivialising the work of a guest scientist on his TV3 show. Honestly, I was tempted to let it pass.
After all, New Zealand is facing some really big challenges right now, like climate change and child poverty. Puerile sexism masquerading as humour on television seems like an insignificant problem.
Except it’s not, is it?
The host’s question, like my impulse to dismiss it as trivial, is a symptom of a bigger problem. Covert persistent sexualisation of women is a bigger problem for our whole society.
So I drafted up a campaign, and sent it to some wise friends. This was going to be our first campaign, so I wanted to strike the right note. Several of those wise friends came back saying they weren’t sure this was the right topic for our first campaign.
“Don’t you want to launch with a fully heartfelt, well-rounded, affects-all-people action.”
And I knew what they meant. And yet.
Sexism does affect us all.
It took courage to launch with a campaign about sexism. I knew there would be some people in New Zealand asking ‘is this really important enough for my attention?
Yesterday I read this fantastic piece by Rebecca Traister in which she reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Tina Fey’s BOSSYPANTS:
“Amy Poehler, then new to “Saturday Night Live,” was engaging in some loud and unladylike vulgarity in the writers’ room when the show’s then-star Jimmy Fallon jokingly told her to cut it out, saying, “It’s not cute! I don’t like it!” In Fey’s retelling, Poehler “went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him,” forcefully informing him: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
The first time I read that scene I remember wondering whether many men would understand why it mattered so much. Why Fallon’s apparently harmless observation earned Poehler’s forceful response. I knew that I understood. As Traister observed:
“I suspect that a lot of this irritation over the small stuff right now is directly related to the fact that we’re mired in a moment at which lots and lots of women are not good … The ease with which women’s choices regarding their bodies, futures, health, sex, and family life are up for public evaluation.”
She had put into words what I’d been trying to explain about our campaign, and why it matters.
It matters because it’s one symptom of a system in which not only do men feel entitled to ask women scientists about their sex lives, they also feel entitled to declare that girls who wear short skirts to parties are ‘asking to get raped’, and decide whether women are able to access safe abortions.
And while it is certainly true that #notallmen enact that entitlement (witness the leader of the Labour Party in New Zealand who recently said that the rate of violence against women in our country made him feel sorry to be a man), it is also true that #yesallwomen have learned to navigate this shitty terrain.
What these smaller incidents reveal, as Traister puts it, is:
“How, in this country, every barometer by which female worth is measured—from the superficial to the life-altering, the appreciative to the punitive—has long been calibrated to “dude,” whether or not those measurements are actually being taken by dudes.”
She was writing about the United States, but the same could certainly be said in New Zealand, and in Australia, and in most of the world. This, above all else, is why I knew we had to find the courage to launch our new organisation with a campaign that some people were not going to like.
This is why I had to put on my best Amy Poehler impression, turn to the world with black eyes and say:
“I don’t fucking care if you like it.”
Because sometimes that’s the bravest thing a woman can say.
Trained as a lawyer, Marianne helped develop human rights strategies for the governments of New Zealand and East Timor, was Policy Advisor for Oxfam, and spent two years in the Gaza Strip before going to Afghanistan, where she served in the United Nations. In Afghanistan, she decided stories were her weapon of choice, and yoga was her medicine.