Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A female voice

Gloria Steinem. Second-wave feminist. Famous feminist.

I hadn't attended any feminist lectures before. I hadn't been to any feminist conferences and I wasn't so sure why I wanted to hear Steinem speak. But when I heard she was here and speaking, I wanted to listen.

And not just listen. I wanted to see her too. The staff at the auditorium told me, and a few other women, that there was no room; we'd have to sit outside and watch a large television screen. But we coaxed, cajoled, complained and insisted that there were reserved seats for us. Once inside, we just squatted on the floor.

Gloria Steinem. Tall, slim, seventy-two. And yes, beautiful. And yes, funny.

She said, that she always thought there ought to be sign outside universities like Yale and Harvard, saying: "Beware. De-construction ahead."

The funniest bits, of course, were the times she quoted from her famous essay, 'If Men Could Menstruate'.

"Men would brag about how long and how much.

Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.

To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps...

Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priests, ministers, God Himself ("He gave this blood for our sins"), or rabbis ("Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean").

[Do read the whole hilarious piece.]

That evening, she was speaking about gender and censorship - the many, many ways in which women's voices have been censored out of sight and mind and discourse.

We know how terrible women's magazines are, don't we? How they mess with women's minds, self-image, etc. How they can make you believe that if you aren't skin and bone, if you can't keep a man, if you don't use foreign brands of make-up, if you can't afford to wear a 3000 rupee shirt, you're worthless.

But the worst punishment such magazines mete out, according to Steinem, is that we grow contemptutous of each other other, because we are led to believe that other women want these things. Which is not necessarily true. She told the crowd about how advertisers in the US dictated content through their 'inserts'. Little notes, clauses almost, that tell the editorial staff: "Must not appear with depressing articles" or "Must not appear in an issue with large-size fashion".

Think about that. Advertisers insisting that not only will they use images of super-skinny women, but that they want nothing to do with any sort of clothing, or word of advice or attitude that may be non-skinny. That is censorship too, isn't it?

Steinem made me think from new angles. Like she herself had been made to think. She had always assumed that women talk more than men (because that's the stereotype.... there are jokes about women not being able to sit quiet, a roomful of silent women being the joke), perhaps, because talking is women's way of expressing themselves, perhaps because other forms of self-expression were denied to them? That is what she thought, until she came across research work that concluded that, contrary to popular belief, women talked LESS than men. In fact, the study found that men talked more about everything, including subjects of female expertise, like child-rearing.

Why did the opposite view prevail, then? Perhaps, because, female talk "was measured against the expectation of female silence." When you say 'more', who decided 'more'? Who decides 'women talk too much'? Probably the many generations of men who were not used to listening to female voices at all.

While on censorship, Steinem spoke about the politics of channeling (where a person claims to have access to spirits, and writes down whatever the spirit says). It seems that most women were channeling men. One of the more famous instances being that of a Columbia University professor who claimed to be writing as Jesus dictated.

According to Steinem, very possibly, these were women who had things to say, but would not be taken seriously, perhaps, but if they claimed to be speaking for famous men, they were listened to, and very possibly made successful. Few men have claimed to be speaking for female spirits. The only exception seemed to be a gay man who channeled the writer Gertrude Stein.

The other, murkier side of censorship is buried in problems such as trafficking. While all efforts are directed at stemming supply, almost nobody talks of stemming demand. For instance, people may argue about legalising prostitution, but nobody seems to think it is a good idea to fine the customer, or to discuss his role in the process.

She spoke of the revolutionary act of translating, of language and exile, the censoring of the oral tradition.

She spoke of how battering men behave like addicts and that asking a man to 'control' his aggression is like telling an addict he can have a little bit of heroin.

She spoke of the campaign to attribute an economic value to all care-giving, at replacement value, and the possibility of making such services tax-deductible and tax-refundable.

It was a joy listening to her and I could easily have sat there listening another hour, had she the time or energy to go on. Many other things were said, of course, but these are some of the things Steinem said that stayed with me:

"We are encouraged to give birth to others before we can give birth to ourselves.

Terms such as 'sexual harassment' have been given to us by the feminist movement; before that, it was called 'life'.

The art of behaving ethically is to act as if everything we do, matters."

That, above all. To act as if everything you do, say, don't do, matters.


Falstaff said...

I'm not sure why it's "censorship". Advertisers have a perfect right to control the placement of an ad that they're paying for. No one's forcing the editors of these magazines to accept these ads - they could perfectly well choose to reject advertisers who tried to dictate content and retain the freedom to publish stories about non-shiny, non-happy women. This may mean that the price of the magazine goes up, but if these stories are what the readers want, they should be willing to pay for them. And if there really is a demand for magazines that talk about real women's issues (as opposed to the 372 ways to make 'your man' happy) then a magazine that took that line could actually end up attracting a better class of advertisers and / or charging higher rates.

If, as Steinem claims, other women don't want these things, if both the content and advertising that go into 'women's' magazines are not of interest to women, then how come it sells? How do these advertisers get the money to advertise products that nobody wants? Why do they choose to advertise in magazines that nobody could possibly be reading because nobody's interested in these things? Revealed preference is what it is. And neither the magazine nor the advertiser has any power not derived from active demand by (presumably female) consumers.

Let's not confuse supply and demand with the abuse of authority. And let's not blame our own failings as consumers on evil corporate conspiracies.

P.S. LOVE the menstruation piece.

Anonymous said...

sigh.... i SO wanted to be there:'(

Jay Sun said...

Nice written...and thanks for the link to "If Men could Menstruate"...hilarious !!! :)

m. said...

waaaa! :(( gloria steinem? really??

sigh. i'm glad it was you if it had to be someone other than my clamouring self! you do the opportunity more justice :)

the being said...

the menstruation piece is hilarious!

Falstaff: About the equation of supply and demand... some(most) women want to see glossy, thin women as symbols of beauty, because our norms of beauty have been fuelled by decades of patriarchial standards. The ads for products that can make u that way, just re-inforce these mysogynistic notions of thin-glossy-happy women. some kind of viscious cycle here.

Anonymous said...

This piece is so well-timed!! including the links.

Falstaff said...

sudha: I agree entirely and am all for breaking the stereotype. But the way to break that vicious cycle is to use our power as consumers to reject the trash that publishers keep putting out there. Burying our head in the sand and pretending that women don't really WANT these things ("we are led to believe that other women want these things. Which is not necessarily true") isn't just untruthful, it's also counterproductive. It's like the alcoholic who says he doesn't really have a drinking problem, it's just that other people keep trying to get him drunk.

My point is that it's ridiculous to expect corporations to give up on lucrative opportunities in the interests of social change when the people who that change would most benefit, and who are creating that opportunity by buying the magazines and the goods advertised in them, can't be bothered / convinced to stop doing so.

Annie Zaidi said...

falstaff: have a few things to say which i'm putting together in a separate post.
sudha: agree there, of course
jay; thanks
bluespiite: sigh. it is!
karlton, m: oh well! next time.

Dilip D'Souza said...

What can I say. I'm jealous. I met a Pulitzer Prize winner two nights ago, but I'd have gladly given that up to listen, with you, to G Steinem.

Liked the menstruation article, but I liked your (too-brief) account of her talk more.

Nabila Zehra Zaidi said...

I am becoming a bigger fan of urs by every passing day Ann. Was just reading 'Crush', finished half of it and I love is sooo cuutee...
n as 4 dis article...dis 1 simply ROX!!..n yes Steinem is all oders ide 2 say..d menstruation piece was juz 2 gud n ur account and experience of this little indirect meetin wt her is wat not juz u but im sure every woman and man 2 wud feel!! makes u feel gr8 readin sumthin like dis! :-)

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