I am a white male middle class man living in the rich west, owning a car, a house and a pension fund. Despite the sense of crisis that has us all fearfully looking over our shoulders at anything different, globally speaking I have got it made.
I heard this slightly annoying American phrase recently- ‘Mind your privilege’. Annoying, but apposite. There is that old Jesus phrase about camels and the eyes of needles. If we live with privilege, we live with the responsibility to question where this emanates from- how the operation of power and control in your favour affects others. This used to be a hot political topic in the UK- we seemed to genuinely strive for some kind of level playing field, even though it was such an elusive goal. We wanted to understand prejudice, class differences in education attainment, the reasons why black young men were vastly over represented in our prisons and our secure mental hospitals, and why women seemed to be second choice for every career promotion.
Which brings me to the point- the old male/female thing.
There seems to have been a kind of general feeling that the gender battle is over- the suffragettes sorted the political stuff, the pill liberated women sexually, the seventies feminists won all those equal pay battles, but since then might have taken the man-hating a bit too far. The reality of course is that by any measure of attainment, career choice, income, etc, men and women are not equal. In fact there is some evidence that things might be getting worse.
Alongside this, there are some cultural cues that are rather disturbing- and makes me wonder if we have come very far at all.
A few years ago, when my daughter was much younger, she came home from school and told me she had joined a group at school who were learning how to do cheer-leading. She was going through some of the usual in-group/out-group nastiness at the time, and this was something she could throw herself into that was socially acceptable for girls at her school- perhaps the only physicality that it was possible to display within the mainstream.
I was rather horrified to be honest, and had long conversations with her about cheer leading. It seems to me to be an activity that sums up the hierarchical, subordinate role of women in sport. They exist to ornament the achievement of their male counterparts, performing acts of sexualised public admiration. Sure, I know there is skill involved, and that there are male cheer leaders too, but we are talking about the symbolism here.
My daughter kind of fell away from it all, thankfully. She made new friendships, got into music and moved on. But I was left quite shocked by the culture of school in post modern UK. Mean Girls seemed to offer more of a glimpse of reality than I was prepared for.
I was reminded of all this when reading Tanya Gold’s piece in the Guardian.
Those who insist we are witnessing the end of men, and cite (middle-class) female over-achievement at school, university and in the early years at work as evidence that feminism has done its job – and promise we will shortly regard a female-run planet, like the Planet of the Apes but more spa-themed – ignore two critical factors: the likelihood of motherhood, and the enduring, complex legacy of a female education.
Even the Girls’ Day School Trust, not a notorious radical feminist pit or favoured kindergarten for the brave women of Femen and Pussy Riot, is concerned that the “skills” females learn at school damage them in the workplace. I agree. They are not so much skills, I think, as dating tips for women who will grow to live – or, if you prefer, die – by the rules.
Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the trust, was moved to polemic in the Times Educational Supplement last week, as Totton and Zissman battled to impress Sugar with the depth of their conventionality. Stannard asked why, since “girls are outperforming boys at school and then at university … this superiority is not translating into sustained success in the world of work. From politics to the police service, men outstrip women in terms of salaries and representation at the top of management.”
How true. Those who fear the early success of girls, and foretell the end of men, surely miss the point. It is a trend that is swiftly decapitated, as Stannard says. And that women should end so badly, having begun so well, is only more appalling. “Are we,” he asks, “doing girls a long-term disservice by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to expectations of behaviour and work that reflect, reinforce and reproduce differences between the genders?”
Alongside this we have the kind of empowerment known as ‘girl power’- defined by celebrity, fake tan and botox. Girls are valued primarily for their decorative external assets once again. Watch them strut their stuff on the dance floor, coated in expensive cosmetics. If you miss the stereotype then get some work done.
I want so much more for my daughter, beautiful though she is. In saying this, I am aware that I would not be mentioning the beauty of my son had this been a discussion about male gender roles!
Now here is the question- where is the church on these issues? How do we engage with our privilege? How do we seek to understand our culture, and to sprinkle salt to bring out the goodness. (Or to be engaged critics where we feel this to be appropriate?)
On the face of things, sadly, the answer is that we are doing poorly;
- All the nonsense in the C of E about women bishops
- Fixed ideas about the roles of women in other parts of the church
- The theology of difference- based on readings of St Paul and the book of Genesis
- The cult of the male worship leader, the male preacher, the male apostle
A work in progress then?
How do we live within the world, but not of it? How do we discover again the life of the Kingdom for women as well as men?
Not by the application of botox, of that I am sure.