The Female Script: Re-written and Undone

The female script. What is it?

Baby girl is conceived. Mom is thrown a baby shower with pink as the prevailing color and princess as the prevailing theme.

Baby girl is born. She is born into pink. She is born into princess. Little dresses, tea parties, and aisles of pink toys of plastic dishes, stoves and dolls line the shelves of your local Target, Walmart, and Toys R Us. “Aren’t you so pretty!” The exclamations roll off the tongues of family members and strangers.

Baby girl grows into a school age child. The script plays out. Thin and beautiful are the qualities of an actress called, “woman” to be played out in this…her lifetime.  She gets three options. She can save the world as a Katniss or Elsa. She can be saved by the dominate, powerful superhero such as Spiderman and Batman or she can be the evil witch, bratty super model, or bitchy Stepford wife. She is told that she can be anything she wants, but what’s written in the script is not what she has been told to be true. Just being “normal” is not a part of the character profile. Female based sports is not something she see’s daily on television. In her view, sports are not common or important for women. On Halloween, her choices for costuming are party girl, vixen, or dominatrix. Super hero is saved for her male counterparts.

Baby girl grows to become a Tween. She is handed her first cell phone. She starts to notice boys. She shops at stores that tell her that her clothes should no longer cover her body. The shorter the better is the mantra of her shopping ventures and for her body…thinner is prettier. She is now paying attention to music. Her music might use the words “Bitch” and “Ho.” She might start to use those words to describe her friends. She just might start to use those words as a prideful way to describe herself. Her media icons are dumbed down and catty. They are called sluts and play the role of arm candy for the powerful man who has gone from Disney Prince to powerful football star. Date rape may or may not be a part of her future.  

Baby girl has become a teenager. By now, she has been asked for nude or partially nude photo’s of herself by a boy she believes she loves and in turn loves her back. They break up. She’s now a victim of revenge porn and countless people have seen her young, underage breasts. She is blamed, for she should not have sent the pictures to begin with. Story notes will read, “Boy is blameless. Girl is slut.”

Baby girl arrives at college. She’s the potential victim of sexual assault. She is told to not go out alone. Don’t get drunk. Don’t bring a boy back to your dorm. Watch how you dress. Stay focused on school. It’s important she pays attention, because rape may or may not be prosecuted on her campus. The societal message is to keep her legs closed, because any unwanted pregnancy is 100% her fault.

The script plays out. As an adult she lays out the plans for career, marriage and family. The question isn’t, “Do you want children,” but “When are you having children?”  It is important to have a husband, because her pay directly correlates to that of being a woman and she may not be able to support a family. She takes on a career and takes on the home. As an adult, she lives the script that was written for her back before she was born. She plays the role of the woman she practiced becoming the day she was a handed her first set of pink dishes and played tea party.  In her career, she is called a bitch when she asserts herself and labeled moody when she has a bad day. She is asked if she is having her period.  By now, she has been silenced. She is tired. Her tears are hidden.

By middle age, she realizes that script wasn’t written for her, but for rules written a millinea ago for a woman that never really existed. In this powerful and influential script, for a play dominated by societal’s misogynistic expectations, it doesn’t have characters who are overweight or gay or short or smart or black or Hispanic or Muslim or just simply, normal. The script wasn’t written for that woman or for that matter…any woman.

Walt Whitman once told us that the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse. Oh me. Oh life. What is the verse in this life that we are writing for our women? Do women really contribute their own verse or is it the scripted verse handed to them when they are born? When will we throw away that out dated, misogynistic script and show our future generation of women that they define their own character and the script is written in their own hand and in their own time?

The reality is that until women are represented as to who they really are as opposed to who we expect them to be, then their hand will never write the script. Women will never write their own script until they can grasp the pen by themselves, unguided by that of another.

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How Do We Weigh These Things, Anyway?

There are those who argue that social issues, such as LGBT issues and women’s rights, are comparatively smaller issues in the grand scheme of things. Not so much that they are unimportant, but that in comparison to things like climate change and massive wars, the threat is less imminent. This is a stance that I completely disagree with.

While I do believe that some issues should be weighed more heavily than others, and that politicians do use social issues to manipulate the masses into forgetting that both of the major parties have been bought and sold, then gutted of any value that they ever had to begin with, there are a couple of reasons why I would argue that these issues are just as important as any other issue:

1. Personal happiness and quality of life.
There are realities of the world, and the reality is that no one is completely altruistic. I’m not so cynical as to claim that everyone is completely selfish by nature (I’m not a capitalist, after all), but humans are animals that are motivated by a wide variety of things, which include empathy and morality, but also self-preservation, personal happiness, and quality of life. Fighting against war, economic disarray and climate change are very important to self-preservation, but humans shouldn’t have to live for the sole purpose of survival. With personal happiness and a high quality of life, I am more inclined to want to survive.

2. These issues bleed into each other.
Let’s take women’s rights, for instance. Women still make less than men. It’s gotten better, but not as much as it should have. This is partially due to corporations lobbying against anti-discrimination laws as recently as this year. I used to work for a retailer that hired primarily female associates (which is also a form of discrimination, lest we forget), and they were publically opposed equal pay laws. Now, I hear you shout “Yes, but aren’t you proving my point about how corporate corruption is a widespread issue?” Yes, but you’re also proving my point by saying that they’re linked together. I actually agree that we’re fighting the same evil, but I’m coming at it from a different angle. Things don’t change in one grand swoop in this country. Things change by chipping away at the problem until it falls down.

So yes, we should be fighting against all corporate corruption, but attacking specific issues, such as wage gaps, is a lot easier than attacking an abstract concept.

3. Discrimination is bad for the economy.
I know this is technically covered under 2, but I felt that this argument has value on its own. Yes, discrimination really is bad for almost everyone (save, perhaps, the CEO, whose doing just fine). This isn’t just lefty rhetoric. Groups that are being discriminated against tend to make less, which means that there’s even less of a middle class. The smaller the middle class, the less money there is in the economy. Which means we’re all screwed.

4. This is a very privileged argument.
I’ll come out and say this: this is one of those arguments that I mostly hear from white cis-men. When you’re not living this every day, it’s easy to not recognize that these issues are as massive to many of us as something like climate change. This is my day-to-day life. I’m female, and as a female, my rights are controversial. I’m bisexual, and as a bisexual, my very existence is controversial. These issues are equally important because they affect my life just as much as the other issues.

So, all in all, I think that viewing these issues as comparatively small is fair at first glance, but when you’re talking about people’s lives, you need to dig a little deeper.

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“I bought a mattress and health insurance”

Cross-posted from UN Women

Rwandan women smiling

Rwandan rural women farmers applaud their accomplishments within the Farmer Field School training. Photo: Stephanie Oula/UN Women

Kigali, Rwanda – On a sunny Tuesday in the Nyaruguru district of Rwanda’s South Province, 75 women and men gather in their best clothes to graduate from the UN Women-supported Farmer Field School programme. They are among 350 farmers who have undergone a six-month course to learn modern agricultural techniques for their wheat and Irish potato crops.

“You can’t even compare the opportunities as an individual to those of being in a group,” said graduate Donata Nukabayiza. “It is very difficult as an individual farmer to get subsidies or even resources like fertilizer. But there is power in a group. It is much easier because the land is consolidated, and you can obtain advice, agricultural services, or loans. You can organize and develop a business plan as a group or cooperative.”

Farmer Field Schools make agricultural education practical and easy. They focus on participants’ own observations, discussions and practical field exercises. Courses are tailored by agricultural zone, ecosystem, rainfall and length of crop season. Weekly sessions then help participants make informed decisions on things like pest control and how to manage their crops throughout the season.

This particular programme is run by the Imbaraga Federation, a local farmers’ non-governmental organization, with financial and technical support from UN Women/One UN in Rwanda and funding from the Governments of Korea, Spain and Norway. Poor and vulnerable farmers were selected in two districts (Nyaruguru and Kirehe), of all ages and educational levels. Ninety per cent are women.

Non-members also take part in weekly course discussions, increasing overall community awareness.

The women line up for the Farmer Field School graduation photo. Photo: Stephanie Oula/UN Women

The women line up for the Farmer Field School graduation photo. Photo: Stephanie Oula/UN Women

The schools also provide entrepreneurship training and teach important business and financial skills. Each group pooled savings to create a credit scheme. With funds ranging from RWF 470,000-650,000 (USD 690.00-954.00), members can borrow loans from the group fund, with low interest rates of around 2 per cent.

Initially, the women received little support from their male family members. However, when the men in their families saw the knowledge and skills that the women were gaining, they became more supportive. Some husbands even made contributions to the group savings fund.

Several women report that since they joined the Farmer Field Schools, agricultural productivity has increased and access to health care has improved, as members can subscribe collectively to health care for themselves and their families. Increased nutritional knowledge and skills from trainings have also benefited families.

“I bought a mattress and health insurance for my family and paid my children’s school fees with my loan,” said Christine Karuyumbu.

Transforming themselves into cooperatives has drastically changed their way of working — the 14 existing Farmer Field School groups are now more business-oriented, leading to a wealth of other opportunities. As a result of entrepreneurship training, one group plans to start potato seed production for retail. Another group will buy a pig for each member of the fund, to promote small livestock-keeping.

At the graduation ceremony, some small children gurgle happily in the background, a reminder that many women here balance equal workloads as mothers and farmers. Due to a lack of infrastructure and services, rural women spend more time on household work than their urban counterparts. Several of the women graduates say that they were able to attend because classes were only one half-day per week – gender-sensitive scheduling that allowed them to meet their multiple domestic responsibilities.

“We will celebrate our certificates more tonight,” says Amelie, flashing a shy smile. And after graduation? “We will keep saving to lend among ourselves, to become professional farmers, and to multiply the good,” she says, with her colleagues vowing to continue the ripple effect of rural women’s empowerment in their communities.

This project is supported through core funding to UN Women, the One UN team in Rwanda, and project funding from the Governments of Korea, Spain and Norway.

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Emma Watson made me realize that boys need heroines, and so do their fathers.

I wrote a Facebook post the other day about the reaction to Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N. In it I wrote “After watching her speech to the UN yesterday, I was simply glad Emma Watson existed…That any sons or daughters I might have will be able to see this incredible woman live, and make a powerful mark on the world.” Except that’s not how I wrote it out at first. That last line was first written “That any daughters I might have will be able to see this incredible woman live…”

That’s a big difference. And I hadn’t even realized there was a difference available.

I think of myself as a believer and supporter of equal human rights and respect. And I respect the female sex. I genuinely believe and have seen women do brave and amazing things. Women are intelligent and talented and not only do they have a right to be an equal part of shaping this world…this world needs women to play an equal part in shaping it. But.

I have heroes. I don’t really have any heroines.

It’s not like I’ve never appreciated a female lead in a great story, or admired the accomplishments or character of a woman I’ve known. But I’ve never looked up to a woman as a personal hero or role model. Famous or familiar. I can name some women who are great role models, but that isn’t quite the same thing as them being my role models.

When schools bring in members of the community to volunteer at schools or organizations, they make sure to have a diverse group of community members. And to include some women to be role models to the girls. Right? That’s the mentality behind it, and it makes total sense of course. It’s great. Women need female rold models…duh. But what about the guys? Why shouldn’t we have the mentality that the woman who manages a branch of a bank and has come in to talk to a group of teens is there to be a role model for the boys as much as the girls?

We could cure sexual inequality in a generation

If all children grew up seeing their fathers genuinely admire female role models equally to his male role models, those children would grew up with the standard that women are equal to men. It wouldn’t even be an issue.

Respect isn’t inherent, even if it should be. Respect is learned. Or not learned at all. How will boys learn to respect women if their fathers don’t look up to any?

The answer, of course, is the hard way. They can do it, certainly, or sexual inequality would be even worse than it is. But it means changing our ingrained, unconscious beliefs and bias. Why not do it the easy way? Create a home environment where men lead by setting the example of following worthy women as much as they follow worthy men.

It starts at home

Where do we get our first examples of what love is, how to choose it, how to treat it, and how to give it? Our parents of course. Boys and girls need to see their fathers respect their mothers. They need to see the father treat the mother figure as an equal, accept help and advice from the mother, be confident and a strong support, be grateful towards the mother and not take her for granted.

There are two prerequisites for that. The man has to choose a woman he respects and admires as an equal to be his partner, and the woman has to choose a man she respects and admires as an equal. Of course, that doesn’t only apply to men and women. That applies to couples of any sex or orientation. Relationships must be equal in order to demonstrate sexual equality and mutual respect.

Equality goes both ways

That isn’t an issue for me. I’m not (overly) intimidated by strong women. I have a history of friendships and relationships with strong women. And I chose a partner who is my equal in intelligence, courage, determination, and capability. We challenge each other, try to keep up with each other, and build each other up on a constant, unconscious and conscious basis.

Perhaps the more difficult challenge I would face in raising a son who admires women would be in teaching him how to not only see women as his equals, but also to see himself as their equals. This is one big side of the sexual inequality coin.

Now, don’t jump to any conclusions here. I’m not implying any sort of boo-hoo, it’s hard being a man nonsense. Sure, it’s hard being a man. It’s only as hard as it is to be human. Nobody really has it easy. Women, have been dealt the far worse hand. But the reality of the world where men are automatically placed into a higher position of power does not equate to a world where those same men are taught, equipped and supported to handle that power well and fairly. Men are fucked up. We’re just as weak and insecure as anyone else. Even the loud, obnoxious, macho types.

In fact, I’ve been told by professionals who work with abused women and their abusive partners that power is the issue that drives men to abuse. It’s not an anger problem. It’s a power problem. Or more specifically, a powerlessness problem. Men who feel powerless abuse others in order to inflate their sense of power.

Powerlessness? You’ve gotta be kidding me

So wait, what? Men are simultaneously seeing women as inferior, and feeling weak and powerless around them? Yeah. Pretty fucked up right? But yeah, that’s kind of the deal. Remember that douche who shot a bunch of people because girls didn’t like him? That’s not a superiority complex. That dude feels like a piece of shit all the time – because he is. And yet, our culture tells him that women are inferior. So now he feels awful about himself, and all these women who are supposed to be inferior to him won’t sex him up and make him feel better, so if even they don’t like him then he must really be a weak, pathetic, powerless…oh god, not even a man.

Nope, not kidding

I’ve lost my temper many times in my life, and I’ve paid enough attention to pinpoint the exact trigger. Powerlessness. Whether it was being 8 years old, throwing Nintendo controllers at the wall because I was completely unable to beat my 6-years-older-than-me brother at Super Tecmo Bowl, or whether it was when I was 26 and exploded a pint of blackberries all over the kitchen because of one more reminder that I just wasn’t making enough money, it always came down to a feeling of helplessness. Of being powerless. It’s a moment of sheer, blind panic. It’s intolerable. And the fastest, most efficient way to deal with the overwhelming, intolerable feelings of helplessness and weakness is to destroy something. Especially if that something is what’s “making” you feel powerless.

Be powerful and seek powerful partners

So how do we distill all that into a set of ideals for equal relationships between men and women? We teach our sons to admire strong, healthy women. We teach them that strong, healthy women are desirable. We teach them that they are equal to and worthy of strong, healthy women. And we teach them how to be exactly that.

I don’t just want a son of mine to look up to great women. I want him to seek them out as friends and partners. And I want him to do so with the utmost confidence that he is their equal every bit as much as they are his. He needs to be able to lead in their relationship, and needs to be able to follow with equal grace. He needs to have the ability and courage to take charge in their work, social, family, and romantic life. And he needs to be excited about the experiences it adds to his life when his partner takes charge.

He needs to not be afraid to talk to a girl. Guys who are afraid to talk to girls, seek out girls that seem weaker in some sense. Easier somehow. They might have a lesser reputation for being “hot”, or they might be less accomplished, or less wealthy. Ladies, you don’t want that guy. He often masquerades as a “nice guy”, which usually just means shy and insecure. Shy and insecure is not safe. Not anymore so than the arrogant and obnoxious. You want a guy who is glad to be himself. If he likes you, then it’s because he likes who you are as much as he likes who he is, not because he’s compensating somehow.

So that’s the challenge. To teach our sons to admire women. To teach them to love themselves. And to teach them to pursue powerful women as equals to share and build a life together.

How I will lead

My first step is to find a female role model who will have an ongoing, positive impact on how I think and behave. To do that I need to learn about some great women. I’m starting with what I have, which is a long-suspected admiration for Tina Fey, which I have yet to investigate more closely, and an audiobook called Bossypants, written by the great woman herself. Maybe if I learn more about the woman behind the impressive accomplishments I’ll find a personal connection to her example in this world and come to see her as a personal role model, not just a good role model for women.

Then again, maybe I won’t. There are many great people in history and in our world, and only a select few of them are role models to me. If I don’t find myself latching on to Tina Fey as a role model, at least the experience of investigating her life and character will serve to open my eyes to the possibilities of female role models for my person. It will certainly raise my level of respect for her.

I’m open to suggestions of who to learn about and how to do so. These days my role models tend to be people whom I have seen (in person or in retold retrospect) put in lots of hard work and perseverance to an ambition. That’s my thing these days, my motto, do the work. I admire men who do the work. Why shouldn’t I admire women who do it too?

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I am, I am, I am – What The Bell Jar meant to me

I first read The Bell Jar when I was 15 and even at that turbulent age it spoke to me as a brutally honest and dangerously accurate depiction of female anxiety and self-doubt. Years later, after several re-readings, it is still my favourite novel. Plath’s words cut through me like a coarse sword. Everything she writes seems like it comes from a secret voice inside my own soul, I am no longer alone. So many times in my life I have felt just as Plath did, silently caught in the bell jar, hanging suspended from everybody else.

The Bell Jar is a novel I wish I could have written; it is a beautifully funny portrayal of despair and alienation. Esther is intelligent and attractive, she is led to believe she has the world at her feet, yet like so many of us she is disillusioned with the constraints of her society, its expectations and assumptions about young women. Esther speaks bluntly about her fears and desires, something I have only just recently managed to do. She makes me a part of her complex psyche; I am considered an ally – someone who understands. And I do understand.

Just like Esther I stand beneath the fig tree watching the fruit wither and fall because I can’t decide what I want. I am disturbed and sickened by societies requirements of me, and I know explicitly what it feels like to want to hide from the world under my bed sheet whilst trying to cling on to my hopes and dreams. Plath holds a mirror up to my heart and forces me to look at myself, she forces me to stare my anxieties in the face and not apologize for being fearful or worried about the future.

The Bell Jar made me feel less like an outsider and more like a human being. It discusses the dynamics and complexities of growing into a woman, the inexplicable truth rather than the trope presented to us in women’s magazines. It refuses to tell women what they should be, instead Esther admits what many of us are feeling – we don’t know who we are, and we don’t know where we’re going, but that’s all okay – as long as we’re not alone.

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