I protest quite a bit. Sometimes I march. Sometimes I charge around with a megaphone. Sometimes I commit acts of aggravated sitting or aggravated banner waving or other aggravated perfectly legal activities. Sometimes I might get a little stubborn about melted cheese on my food and throw a bit of a strop.
I protest quite a bit.
I also happen to be a woman. A cis, somewhat femme woman.
In a perfectly gender-neutral, equal society in which women are viewed as people rather than objects, these two facts should be entirely unrelated. This is the world I am fighting to build. It is not a world we inhabit.
The media tend to view women who protest as something of an anomaly: a fascinating creature to be documented and photographed meticulously. A particularly striking example of this is this Daily Mail article [clean link; they will not be getting the clicks they crave] which mixes images of “riot porn” with young women, breathlessly commenting on how exciting and new it is that girls are worrying their pretty little heads with politics. The images are strikingly similar to the annual newspaper feeding frenzy of printing pictures of girls celebrating their A Level results, which tend to imply that the route to four As at A Level is to appear female and jump a lot. Many of the photo collections of actions feature a young woman holding a placard or shouting as their front page, reducing the message of the protest down to”you’re cute when you’re angry”. These photographs are invariable captioned “a female protester joins in”.
From personal experience, this is because photographers tend to gravitate towards the women, buzzing like wasps at a jam sandwich. I recall one instance in which a photographer lay down on the floor in front of me, attempting an upskirt shot. A comrade of mine once attracted the attention of a particular photographer, who spent the entire action taking close up pictures of her face and breasts. Another comrade is prominently featured in the photosets of every action she has ever attended.
These women are intelligent, articulate, opinionated and angry, and yet their participation is reduced to little more than a bit of cheap eye candy.
Then there are the trolls: an example of this is the overt misogyny in criticism of articles written by journalist Laurie Penny, who happens to be a young woman. These criticisms are rarely related to the content of her writing, or even to her politics, but, rather a stinking mire of hatred, much of it focused on her gender, including calls for her to be raped and an obsessive deconstruction of her looks.
I have experienced this to a much, much smaller extent on Twitter. Members of the EDL have a fondness for talking about my breasts rather than responding to the fact that I called them a bunch of fucking fascists.
The objectification of women is not merely external, though. Some of it comes from our own back garden.
I have expressed my frustration before that the dominant voices in consensus meetings tend to be male. This can sometimes trickle down into actions.
On more than one occasion, I have heard a frantic whisper ripple through the group:
“Can we have a woman talk on the megaphone?”
On more than one occasion, I have heard this succeeded by:
“We don’t want it looking like it’s all blokes. It doesn’t matter what you say. We just need a woman to speak.”
Before I stopped worrying and learned to love the megaphone, a part of me believed that perhaps this should be the extent of my participation in a protest planned by someone else. These days, I have no such qualms, and that megaphone will be pried from my cold, dead hand.
At the back of my mind, though, I still fear that my words are less important than my gender to the media and some of my comrades.
In the comments to my post on decision making among activists, it was noted that male privilege can sometimes be left unchecked. I have some comrades who identify as feminists, but their behaviour is far from it. They are not misogynistic, rather, they display benevolent sexism.
When I speak with them, I see a look cross their faces of bewilderment mixed with paternalistic delight.
It speaks, they seem to silently say. Isn’t that sweet?
I believe this to be the crux of all of these experiences: the photogenicity of woman activists, the resorts to misogyny rather than political debate, the manarchists finding opinions coming from a woman more adorable than valid.
We are still lumbered with the belief that women should be seen but not heard, that we are objects rather than people. Our opinions, therefore, are less worthy. Even among those leading the charge for social change, there is unchecked privilege, which, in the unlikely event of a revolution, would mean building a world in which a woman’s opinion is still novel and surprising.
These attitudes need to be destroyed. Benevolent sexism is as dangerous as hostile sexism.
An angry woman is not cute. An angry woman is a person. It speaks. Why should this be exceptional?