To be a true feminist is to dismiss the very idea of gender

“I fear that many boys of my age fundamentally don’t respect women. They want us around for parties, banter and most of all sex. But they don’t think of us as intellectual equals, highlighted by accusations of being hysterical and over sensitive when we attempted to discuss serious issues facing women.”

altrincham feminists
This quote and photograph comes from an articulate and passionate article from 17 year old Jinan Younis. Her article compromises of a series of reflections and reactions to her attempt to set up a feminist society in her school.

An article that I would add is well worth a read.

Her article is both inspiring and depressing. It is depressing to read such a clear illustration of sexist norms being cultivated in a new generation of men. Yet it is inspiring to read such a powerfully articulate article from a girl who I have no doubt will spend her life pushing for change.

Her article at times hits on the horrific slurs that challenges anyone who thinks that there is no need for feminism. She was called a “feminist bitch” and told her “militant vagina” was as “dry as the Sahara desert” for wanting to stand up for equality, for meritocracy, for the right to not be seen as just a pair of tits.

As with many (but not all) feminist critiques though, her article only tells half a story. It articulates the frustration, anger and indignation of a 17 year old girl but does not begin to look at why the boys might have responded with such seemingly atrocious and irrational views. All over social media the boys are (to a degree rightly) labelled as ‘morons’ ‘arseholes’ ‘fucking idiots’ etc.

To give just one example*:

Without exploring this male flip side of coin, we cannot move any closer to tackling the sort of abuse that Jinan had to suffer for speaking out.

For the boys in her school to have responded in a way that many of us would have wanted – with humility, with intellectual interest and willingness to engage – it would have taken something truly remarkable.

It would have involved the boys not only tackling their own prejudice, asking themselves difficult questions around identity, gender and their own roles in life; but, it would have also involved them challenging the same issues in their peer group. It would have involved them stepping out from their ‘in-group’ and challenge everything they have ever known – their gender identity as a core element of their personal identity.

This is an incredibly hard thing for anyone to do, let alone a 17 year old boy who almost inherently comes packaged with insecurities and uncertainties around their identity.

These 17 year old boys from Manchester, conforming in the way they did to repellent to gender divisions, serve as an interesting illustration of Social Identity Theory and the sociological idea of in-groups and out-groups.

Briefly, Social Identity Theory states that the social groups we belong to (religious, family, football team we support and yes…gender) are  incredibly important for our pride and self-esteem. They also give us a social identity (I am a man, a Cheltenham Town FC support etc etc). In order to enhance our status we attach unrealistic positive attributes to our identity and unrealistic negative attributes on the ‘other’ group. We divide the word into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – even if rational examination challenges these assertions.

I am British and the French and cheese eating surrender monkeys. I am a Cheltenham Town fan and Swindon Town fans are scum. I am a man and women are emotional, vulnerable and pathetic.

This result comes about through three simple steps – categorisation, identification and then comparison.

First we categorise society (are you a student or professional, white or black, British or Irish, male or female?). We then identify and adapt our behaviour to conform with our in-group and lastly we then compare ourselves to other groups – which in turn leads to an artificial understanding of rivalry and thus prejudice.

If we apply this theory to the sexist outburst of the 17 year old boys we can see from the earliest of ages they are taught that they are boys and this constitutes a primary form of their identify. As a baby you are dressed in boy clothes, encouraged to behave like a boy. At school you use the boy’s cloakrooms, play boy sports and told to use the boy’s toilets.

By the time these kids reach sixth form college the self-identification of being male is engrained into everything they know.

This identification then encourages them to modify their behaviour – often in a stereotypical unhelpful way (think about the abuse the boy in your class who cried received). In turn they then reinforce this identity by belittling the ‘other’ – girls.

The other thing that was missing from Jinan’s article was the observation that of course the exact same process has occurred for her female peer group. How often at school did you hear boys being called ‘meat heads’, ‘stupid’, ‘aggressive’, ‘he just thinks with his dick’, ‘all brawn and no brains’ etc etc. Unrealistic and negative attributes to a group that of course have the same capacity for feelings, and thoughtfulness as their female peers.

The difference is that the male ‘in-group’ has a millennia of domination behind them which comes with a plethora of tools such as language, behaviour and social structures to project the ‘othering’ through.

This is one theory of how where we have got to where we are (prejudice, gender based violence, discrimation etc) but the pertinent question is, how can we move this forward?  Here a division occurs in my thinking between the ideal and realistic.

The ideal involves breaking down the very idea of gender. I have written before about why I don’t think gender of sex identification is particularly useful but understand that that getting people to drop their gender identity might be difficult.

The realistic approach would be to move to stop putting such an emphasis on gender – to teach kids that their gender is just one of a plethora of ways to categorise themselves and that in the vast majority of social stratifications they will share characteristics with girls. In short – to focus on the overwhelming similarity that exists between boys and girls, rather than the difference.

Any sharp minded reader will spot just how far we are even from my ‘realistic approach’ though.

It is not an easy issue to challenge, but if our next generation is going to grow up in a society free from such sexist prejudice that at the moment so disproportionately limits girls, we need to face up to the fact that our gender identities are perpetuating some of the most pertinent problems are society faces.

*It has been rightly pointed out to me that my one example I pulled out of twitter at random was actually talking about the boys behaviour and not the boys themselves (an important distinction). 

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