The Things We Tell Our Girls

I was really lucky growing up.

My parents were always focused on our learning, our happiness and on making ourselves the best we could be – and we had plenty of opportunities to do whatever we wanted. I had violin lessons, but was terrible at sports; my sister hated to be taught music, but had an incredible talent for teaching herself to play. We were really lucky.

So for most of my life, I was pretty comfortably shielded from a lot of bullshit. I mean, I was a fat girl, with braces, spots and bad hair – so moving schools wasn’t exactly easy, and I didn’t have all that many friends. But generally, I didn’t doubt that I could do anything, and it never really occurred to me that I’d be any worse off as a result of my gender – because, in my Dad’s words, “there’s no reason my daughters shouldn’t have the same opportunities as someone else’s sons.”

(Yes, my Dad is awesome.)

So, having come to feminism pretty late – and only, really, because my body had changed so much as to make certain men treat me differently thanks to being more “conventionally” attractive – I was a tad behind on the whole issue of privilege, and the spectrum of shame, abuse and misogyny that surrounds online conversations today.

This week, however, the varying degrees of these things have been illustrated almost in order across my various online timelines.

There’s been the usual fare: models photoshopped out of all reality; and the Daily Mail, Now Magazine, and Perez Hilton all continuing to snark, because that’s what they do. Even the broadsheets got involved in the language of shame – with a female opera singer described as “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” by the Times, “dumpy” by the Independent and the Telegraph and “chubby” by the Financial Times.

Just concern, gossip, and critique, right? ‘Fair game,’ right?

Unfortunately, this week, those things – those instances of shaming, of snarking, and of downright abuse that consistently piss me off – fell at the lighter, gentler, and more innocuous end of the spectrum.

Somewhere in the middle, there lay the continuous stream of abuse that women face online. My amazing literary agent and good friend Juliet, for instance, faced this:

And at the time of writing, despite several reports to Twitter, the tweet in question still stands – as do thousands of others, racking up wherever women say something ‘unacceptable’ to misogynistic ears. I mean, hell – I get death threats at least a couple of times a week thanks to the fact that back in January, I said something to the effect that internet trolls are moronic asshats with no understanding of what it means to be a person.

As a vaguely outspoken woman online, that’s my normal. I have come to accept it as ‘a thing I have to put up with.’

And the extreme?

That came in the form of a gunman who murdered six people because he couldn’t find a woman to have sex with him. A man whose ego was bruised by rejection, and whose name I won’t repeat here, because he deserves forgetting. This was a man who came to the conclusion that:

“women are flawed. There is something mentally wrong with the way their brains are wired, as if they haven’t evolved from animal-like thinking. They are incapable of reason or thinking rationally. They are like animals, completely controlled by their primal, depraved emotions and impulses. That is why they are attracted to barbaric, animal-like men. They are beasts themselves. Beasts should not be able to have rights in a civilized society.”

This is misogyny, pure and simple. As is this, via @MyAvonHeart:

Quotes - via MyAvonHeart

There is no way – no way – that this should be acceptable thinking or behaviour, whether on or offline. But it’s the logical conclusion of a cultural discourse which is consistently, violently abusive, shaming and demeaning to women. It’s a language we use around women now, and one which will continue to be spoken to our future girls if we don’t choose to change it in this crucial moment.

In short, it’s not ‘just a thing we should put up with.’

For a long time, it took me a long time to want to use the word “misogyny” for fear of causing offence, or of opening myself up to abuse or the “not all men” retorts. Being British, I’m allowing for a lil’ bit of that fear of offence coming as a result of that – but really, it’s entrenched in the way we talk about gendered positions online.

In fact, misogyny and shame culture go hand in hand, because they both perpetuate an idea that women have to look and behave a certain way – to perform a certain role – in order to play their part in society. It’s misogyny that makes rapists think their actions are justified, and shame culture that blames the victim. It’s misogyny that calls women sluts, and demeans them for ugliness – and shame culture that makes young women feel they have to spend hours worrying about how they look, and whether it’s attractive.

We have to make changes across the scope of our experience, and our interactions with each other, in order to make any progress whatsoever.

Men: when we talk about instances of misogyny – assume the “not all men” is implicit. Take it as read. Because I, for one, know that the people committing abuses of any size are the minority – but they do exist, and when we don’t talk about them for fear of causing offence, we’re only giving them more power.

And when we talk about personal instances of shame, or widespread cultural myths, these things are worth calling out for what they are – damaging, cruel bullshit with no place in a society of people who really ought to know better.

Because this is the environment we’re creating for them, and the world we’ll leave behind. This is something we can – and should – be changing, with every choice of words or every call-out of sexism, misogyny, shaming or abuse both online and offline.

We’re better than narrow definitions, simple categorisations and easy targets – but some things are wrong in black and white. In a week where we’ve seen every instance of cruelty, we have to decide, now, to change our words, our thoughts, and our actions – so that we can leave a better language for our girls.

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