An End to All Cages

No matter what you think, you are not a feminist.

According to the Feminist Front (aka the FF, the custodians of womanhood who have made it their duty to whip the rest of us into shape) there is a right way to be a feminist. You can only be a member of this exclusive club if you check all the boxes. Trouble is, the boxes like to shape-shift.

You can’t fight with other women, but you can’t be a fake bootlicker either. Women should never be judged by their clothes, but you still can’t dress “provocatively”. You should fight for your reproductive rights, but never put your children first. You must condemn the objectification of women, but feel free to ogle David Beckham in his underwear. You can express your sexuality however you like – unless other women object. Don’t argue, little girl. The FF knows best.

We can throw the F-word around all we like, but the truth of the matter is that most of us just don’t cut it. Forget man-bashing – the biggest problem with today’s feminists is woman-bashing.

I think we’ve got feminism all wrong. It’s become feminisn’t. I could be mistaken, since I wasn’t there in the heat of battle. I’ve never broken the glass ceiling; for a long time I didn’t even know what a glass ceiling was. Maybe I have no business running my mouth, but I was born into a world where everyone has the right to be heard. I grew up learning all about the greatest power we possess – the power of choice. And I thought, silly little girl that I am, that feminism was about ensuring that both men and women were given that power.

I thought the idea was to create a world where no one has to pretend in order to fit in or be accepted. A world where men and women alike can follow their hearts. A world where everyone can choose. What those choices are, as far as I’m concerned, is irrelevant. To strip a woman of her feminist membership because she wears nipple tassels or believes her man should be head of the house is like stripping a citizen of their right to vote because they picked the party you hate.

The Feminist Front is starting to resemble the same patriarchal forces it claims to oppose. What I keep hearing from the media, from my elders, and even from other highly-respected feminists, is that only some female choices are valid. If you choose a different path you’re “setting us back fifty years”. I’m confused. Where in the manifesto does it say that women, once liberated, must become clones? What are we fighting for? To free women from the control of men, only to have them controlled by other women? To trade one cage for another? Shouldn’t we be fighting for an end to ALL cages?

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It’s not surprising that this is how things have turned out. We always let our personal preferences get in the way of a good cause. When we don’t feel personally comfortable with a certain type of behaviour, we encourage others to condemn it. We say So-and-so is a “bad example”, as though So-and-so negates all the other women in the world. So-and-so is not a bad example. So-and-so is simply ONE example. For every Miley Cyrus there’s an Emma Watson. For every Megan Fox there’s a Lupita Nyong’o. For every Scarlett Johansson there’s a Frieda Pinto. If all you see is one type of “role model”, you’re not paying attention. You want to tell your kids that there’s only one type of person they can be? You want to tell them you’ll only approve of them if they fulfil your expectations, rather than their own? Really? Isn’t that sort of thinking what got us into this mess in the first place?

The pressure on young girls to be all things to all people is enormous – and ultimately far more dangerous than any fad diet or hyper-sexualised pop star. Young girls don’t buckle because there’s too much sex on TV. They buckle because we expect them to be superhuman, because we expect them to be the perfect, brilliant, inspiring, intelligent, strong, talented, happy, healthy women of the future, because they carry the feminist legacy on their shoulders. First, that damn thing is HEAVY. Second, it’s not up to you who your daughters grow up to be.

There are times I wish for the old days, when parents married you off as quickly as possible and you spent the rest of your life bearing children and managing your home. Good, solid, honest work. By now I’d have three kids. I’d be settled and secure. None of this modern panic. Everywhere you turn there’s someone waiting for you to change the world or die trying. In the era when women can finally have it all, having – or wanting – less is a crime. The result is a new kind of oppression that comes from within. Forget the enemy; nowadays you’re more likely to be killed by friendly fire.

We go on and on about stereotypes. Are they problematic? Of course. But there’s a difference between a stereotype and a woman who chooses a stereotypical life. If you want to beat the centrefold stereotype, stop trying to change your body. If you want to beat the “like a girl” stereotype, stop making comparisons based on gender. If you want to beat the Mean Girls stereotype, stop being mean. Stop condemning other women for making personal choices you don’t like and embrace the fact that – for goodness sake – they have the right to choose. Our grandmothers fought for that right. Thank God those women have the freedom to make the bizarre, confusing, potentially disastrous choices they make! Thank God they’re allowed to live and learn on their own terms. Thank God no one – including you – gets to decide for them.

You know what? Maybe there is a right way to be a feminist. Maybe it starts with cutting all the strings and letting go of the connotations. Maybe a true feminist believes everyone has the right to be happy and free to live in a way that’s true to who they are. Maybe the best way to be a feminist is to be a good old-fashioned decent human being. Be compassionate. Be kind. And be grateful that those women whose choices trouble you are in a position to choose at all. There are still far too many people in the world for whom choice is a luxury.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I won’t be bullied by anyone, including the players on my own team. No one is going to tell me how to be a feminist, how to be a woman, how to be an African, a writer, a geek. If I choose to claim a label, I will decide what it means. My label, my rules.

Odd

To be human is to be like a method actor.

It is to play a character in a screenplay you co-authored. Miss X, age Y, from such and such a place, with a set profile that you add to bit by bit as the years go by. At first Miss X is just Miss X, child of Couple Y. Then she becomes Miss X, who likes apples but not bananas, who cries when she hears dogs barking and laughs at the TV no matter what’s on. You edit and elaborate and then, at some point, you slip into character and forget that it’s just a role. You forget to take the mask off, even though it burns.

We are odd creatures, unable to see our own hypocrisy, especially when we interact with one another. We want others to be different so that we can feel more comfortable. It has nothing to do with them. It always comes back to us; everything does. This is the true nature of the complex creature that is the human being; we are utterly self-absorbed. That is how our minds, once they develop enough to generate self-awareness, operate. The world revolves around us, and we create everything in it according to our narrow, limited and thoroughly subjective perceptions.

We see only what we believe to be possible. We cannot see anything else. We cannot think any other way, because the person we have decided to be has a script, and to ad-lib would be treason.

When we are offended by someone’s words, actions or beliefs, we are not really offended. We are afraid. We are threatened, and our instinctive response to that threat is to attempt, through debate, accusation or intimidation, to make that person change so we don’t have to feel that terrible, gnawing thing inside us. It’s a hungry, hungry monster that always needs to be fed, and we’ll do anything to pacify it. We will use whatever system we must to justify our response. We will insist that we are right, that our way is the acceptable, moral, decent way, not because this is true, but because we believe saying so will have an impact on the other person. And when it doesn’t, when they don’t shrivel up in shame and agree to change, we panic. We withdraw in search of like souls with whom we can commiserate, people who will tell us what we need to hear in order to soothe the hungry monster, at least for a time.

But the monster will start to hunger again.

There are things we will not accept because they shake our foundations, the foundations laid so carefully by our parents, guardians, teachers, societies, religions, cultures, friends and our formative selves. We will not accept that the pain doesn’t really go away, that there is no magical transformation, that every second of every day requires work. We will not accept that our prejudices, which seem so natural, so human, are in fact illogical, counter-productive and a hindrance to serenity. We will not accept that the divisions we see are self-created, ideas that started as innocent seeds before spiraling wildly out of control, growing with abandon like grasping creepers , so heavy they crack the walls beneath. We will not accept that we share the burden of history, no matter who we are or where we’re from.

There is no “theirs” and “mine”. Each of us carries the weight of human lives from the dawn of time. We are the oppressors and the oppressed, the victors and the defeated. Try as we might to sever these ties they follow us, creeping under our skin. They crop up in places we least expect to find them and say “Hello. Remember me?”

When we examine ourselves we find crooked things and dark little corners. Frightening as they are, we must look. We must always look. We must go bravely into the cave and shine light on what is hidden, so we can see ourselves for what we truly are, so we can see, at last, that the monster is a silly little creature with gnashing teeth, and we can learn to dodge its bite.

To be human is to learn that what we know is not worth knowing, to return to where we were when we were young and foolish and wise. To be human is not to walk the tightrope, leaning precariously from one side to the other, terrified of falling. To be human is to dance, jump off and fly. And fall. And rise again.

Because the truth, Miss X, is that you are not just the protagonist in a screenplay. You transcend the role. You are the director, the writer, the cast and crew, the scenes that don’t make the final cut. Stop thinking small. You are human, and to be human is to be the whole damn film, bloopers and all. And guess what? That’s a good thing.