Thursday 17 January 2019

Turning equality into a gender battle will backfire

This article first appeared on Malta Today

There’s a line in the film Battle of the Sexes, when a journalist asks Billy Jean King after she beat Bobby Riggs whether she now believes that “women are better than men”, to which she replies that it was never about that. It was about being treated equally (when it came to prize money) and about respect (at a time when female tennis players were treated like silly bimbos). It is pertinent to point out that the famous tennis match was a publicity stunt suggested by Riggs who thoroughly and unabashedly enjoyed being described as a male chauvinist. He wanted to humiliate Ms King because he was an over-the-hill 55-year old former champion and she was, at the age of 29, in her prime. She ended up winning that match in 1973, but as I watched the film and relived that era of my youth which had ignited my belief in gender equality, I found myself wondering whether feminism has brought about the changes it had set out to achieve.

Like Billy Jean King, for me this has never been a battle or a war against men, to determine who is “better” but simply an issue of equal, just treatment so that we can live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. But these days I find myself getting more and more exasperated at how things have gone off at a tangent – and if a feminist like myself feels that way, I can just imagine how others are reacting.

For example, the recent Golden Globe awards made a big deal about the #metoo campaign, with everyone wearing pins saying “Time’s up” for those who use their power to abuse women in the media (or any) industry. But these hashtags and pins are going to be pretty meaningless if, instead of helping those who are truly victims, we are going to start reading sexism and misogny into everything, bashing men at every opportunity. My fear is that we are trivializing a very serious issue and making it just another trendy bandwagon without really considering the consequences. Like anything which is taken too far, we will be undermining the very cause we seek to support.

It is for this reason I think that there was an unnecessary over-reaction to the Charles Caruana Carabez article commenting about the differences between men and women in observations he made while riding a bus, which was written with tongue firmly in cheek. He was obviously deliberately winding women up and fishing for a reaction, and boy did he get one. Personally, I did not find it worth bothering about, because there are so many other more serious issues affecting women which have still not been properly tackled in this country. Yet, predictably a lot of fuss was made over this, and unlike other more worrying instances, this time Minister Helena Dalli decided to step in too (because he is an Education Commissioner within the office of the Ombudsman) saying he should be disciplined for “using sexist language”.

I despair, I really do. Is there really no sense of proportion as to what requires a strong condemnation (there have been more than enough examples in the last few months) and what should just be taken in the context in which it was written or spoken?

I compare this to what happened with homophobia and racism. It is one thing to beat someone up for being gay or refusing to let blacks use the same buses or go to the same schools, which is the very definition of a breach of civil and human rights and cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, treating everyone equally does not mean we need to go to the whole other extreme, and treat minorities with kid gloves or shove certain relatively innocuous minority issues constantly down people’s throats. It does not mean, for example, that every single TV series and film must have the obligatory gay or transgender character in order to compensate for the many decades when such characters were missing from our screens. It is also does not mean that there has to be a furore when black actors are not nominated, such as happened one year when the Oscars were dubbed “Oscars so white”.

Equal opportunities are one thing, but an artificially manufactured landscape where it starts to seem more like puerile tokenism rather than well thought out casting which makes sense within the storyline, just comes across as too self-conscious and contrived. It’s like someone has drawn up a checklist and has ticked all the boxes to make sure no one gets offended or feels left out. But that is not equality, that is the very opposite of equality in fact.

When it comes to gender equality, if we really want to make any headway, let us stop making this about men vs. women, but about men and women working together vs. whoever abuses those who are vulnerable. From workplace bullying to sexual assault to domestic violence to stalking and harassment – these are the really problematic areas we need to focus on. In fact, it would be nice to see less belittlement, humiliation, patronizing and condescending behaviour from both sides. Because I certainly do not want to live in a world where women feel they have achieved ‘equality’ because they put men down the way men have put women down for years.

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