I Need Feminism

Three things happened today that made me think about gender. The title of this post was inspired by a brilliant tumblr on this subject — but more of that, later, after a bit of ranting and some cultural analysis.

Firstly, I stopped following someone on Twitter. (Bear with, as Sally Phillips, would say: this post does get slightly more interesting.) Said person (I won’t name names, as this isn’t really about him, directly) is a journalist, whose writing style and opinions on a variety of things I’ve admired for some years, although his political leanings — as evinced by his choice of newsprint employers — leave a little to be desired. These political tendencies have become more pronounced over the years, and my admiration for him has declined accordingly; the straw that broke the proverbial, though, was a conversation this afternoon that recalled an article he’d written in the aftermath of the Gray/Keys sexism row, last year.

The basic premise of the article was ‘why are women allowed to be sexist about men?’, which is problematic for a whole host of reasons, smacking of Rush Limbaugh’s bizarre beliefs about ‘anti-white racism’. What really rankled, though, was the author’s assertion that he behaved well towards women ‘not because [he was] a feminist, but because [he was] a gentleman’.

Ugh.

Is there anything with quite such a whiff of gin-and-tonic-after-sundown, whip-the-natives-with-one’s-old-school-tie, fillies-belong-outside-the-smoking-room privilege as the phrase ‘I’m a gentleman’? But more importantly, what’s so wrong with being a feminist? Feminism is not about wearing dungarees, cutting one’s hair short, and getting together to talk about how awful men are; it is about having respect, for other people of both genders. Hearing people (ok, it’s usually men) dismiss attempts at promoting respect (which is, after all, what the dreaded word ‘equality’ really means) on the grounds that ‘it’s only feminism’ make me angry — and should, I think, do the same to everyone.

Secondly, I was introduced to a song today at choir, the lyrics of which are taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest (Act II, scene 2, if you’re interested). In their original form, the lyrics are quite interesting, and worth quoting:

The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I,
The gunner and his mate
Loved Mall, Meg and Marian and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate;
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, Go hang!
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch:
Then to sea, boys, and let her go hang!

All fairly misogynistic. Women as objects for male possession? Tick. A woman who doesn’t want to be leered at, brushes men off, and is derided? Tick. Anti-female derision gets converted — ‘let her go hang’ — into outright hatred? Tick. I’m not here to bash Shakespeare, though, or (more likely) the source of this sea shanty, sung by Stephano.

What interested me was the fact that converting these lyrics into a song (as done quite brilliantly by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi) leads to a breakdown in language that inverts this misogynistic sentiment, as shown in the first bass part:

…hang!  Swab–  bo’–

I–  mas–  swab–  bo’–

I–  mas–  swab–  hang.

It is, after all, the sailors who ‘go hang’. (The whole thing’s worth a listen, although the tuning/quality of this recording aren’t great.)

[EDIT: something else which came to me after writing this was that the denouement of this ‘Scurvy Song’, in Mäntyjärvi’s arrangement, has the female voices (SSAA) sign off by echoing the last two words of the song, after the male voices have finished. So it ends with the male sailors being told to ‘go hang’ by the sopranos and altos, who could be understood as giving ‘Kate’ the last word.]

Finally, I want to end with this tumblr, which sums things up nicely.

I need feminism because:

  1. there are still glass ceilings and pay gaps (and I’m aware that there are exceptions — for example, the most highly paid [by quite some way] individual I know of about my age is female — but they are just that: exceptions)
  2. not enough people think about the meaning behind sea shanties like Stephano’s
  3. too many people (women included) think feminism is a dirty word
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