International Women’s Day 2017 – A Soundtrack

As each IWD comes to pass, I find myself more enamoured with the women in my life – friends, family, and acquaintances I admire from afar. They’re as reliable a support network as I could ever dream of having and my primary day to day inspiration. From friends who use their talents to promote the causes we share a passion for, to a mother who became my best friend in adulthood, my early 20s are proving to be happily woman-centric.

We are resilient, warm, and unapologetic (or working on it, if you’re me). We listen and we strive to cultivate an intersectional approach to not just our feminism but our lives – because really, they’re one and the same. We’re often too humble, admonishing our own instinctive lean towards modesty, but we are always learning to recognise our shortcomings and blind spots. To be emotional, and let that define us if we like, but also realise that it’s optional. We notice that as women we carry an innate hesitance to just say without disclaimer, to be perceived attaching authority to our opinions, and so we are driven to make a living from doing just that. Our arts and our sciences are essential, but they are not as effective a tool as our day to day solidarity.

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I was raised by a woman, but I was also raised by music. My dad was very musical, and I’m sure I absorbed some of that, but it played a smaller role in my mum’s life. This meant that after his passing, while my mum had her favourites (The Monkees, Meatloaf, and Al Green off the top of my head) I was in the musical driver’s seat. From a very young age I sought out the sounds and thoughts of those worlds away from me, feasting on any genre I had access to. In terms of what I liked, the requirements were about as loose as they are now: whether it was a beat that facilitated the many hours I would spend self-choreographing round the living room (this also hasn’t changed), lyrics that made sense of my confused preteen feelings, or opinions that I had never been exposed to, I wanted it all.

And so, while I attempt to carve out a place for myself as a writer, the most precious form of expression to me will always be music. I’m competent in a couple of instruments, but I’ve never had the guts to put my words to them, so my respect for those who do – and who do so successfully – is boundless. It’s a privilege to be able to indulge in the arts but some genres were also borne out of necessity, an avenue for minorities and working class people to escape the confines of poverty and oppression, giving a voice to the experiences of themselves and others like them.

That’s why it seems fitting to recognise International Women’s Day with a compilation of my favourite tracks celebrating womanhood. Some I have loved my whole life, while some are more recent discoveries. Some are widely respected and critically acclaimed, while the inclusion of others could almost certainly be effectively torn apart in longform by VICE. No matter, because the flavours of womanhood are limitless.

Please do let me know if you have any tracks to add, for I’m always on the look out.

Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.

 

Starting off with a classic. Queen Latifah defiantly touches on misogyny, cat calling, domestic violence and her experiences as a black woman at the hands of men in her community.

 

Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl

 

No feminist music collection can be complete without recognising the riot grrrl movement, particularly if you grew up on punk rock. ‘When she talks, I hear the revolution/In her hips, there’s revolutions/When she walks, the revolution’s coming/In her kiss, I taste the revolution.’

 

 

Christina Aguilera – Can’t Hold Us Down

 

This was, if my memory serves me, the very first song to put feminism on my radar. I adored Christina and remember using pocket money to buy a copy of Stripped, which I kept on rotation in our living room stereo for years. At such a young age I couldn’t fully comprehend the microaggressions being referred to on this track, on-the-nose as it is, but the overall message is one that stuck with me. ‘So what am I not supposed to have an opinion?/Should I be quiet just because I’m a woman?/Call me a bitch ’cause I speak what’s on my mind/Guess it’s easier for you to swallow if I sat and smiled.’

 

 

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

 

From one of the most important punk rock albums of our time. Laura Jane Grace’s coming out as a trans woman didn’t transform the scene which likes to think of itself as more progressive than it is, but hell did she have an impact. As well as being a bloody great band, Laura’s activism for trans and feminist causes means that Against Me! is more punk than you could ever dream of being. Should be required listening for anyone claiming to be intersectional. ‘You’ve got no cunt in your strut/You’ve got no hips to shake/And you know it’s obvious/But we can’t choose how we’re made/.’

 

Jhené Aiko – Spotless Mind

 

I’m a huge fan of Jhené, and this track really speaks to me in terms of self acceptance and emotional growth. Combined with the video, it reassures me that as a woman I have the right to be whoever I want to be, in as many different ways as I like and in as many different ways as I can’t yet predict. ‘Shame on me for changing? Shame on you for staying the same.’

 

Kimya Dawson – I Like Giants

 

A voice and style immediately recognisable to those of us who went through a Moldy Peaches phase – or saw a few minutes of Juno – this is a typically lovely track about perspective and self worth. A reassuring rub on the shoulder in sonic form. ‘I like giants, especially girl giants/’Cause all girls feel too big sometimes, regardless of their size.’

 

 

Beyoncé – ***Flawless

 

Well obviously. With feminism woven into all of her output these days, I could really pick any Yoncé track from the last two albums – but this is certainly the most blatant, with an excerpt monologue from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in case you didn’t get the message the first thousand times. It’s Bey’s world and we’re living in it. (This is also why she won’t appear on the playlist I put together alongside this post – if it’s Tidal or bust, I’m out.)

 

Paramore – Ain’t It Fun

 

This track’s message might not be overtly feminist (check out Anklebiters which definitely fits the bill), but of this list it’s probably closest to my heart for how it continues to help me embrace emotional resilience. Its dry-witted musings never grow stale or irrelevant, and I dare say that my generation (specifically girls of the alt-music persuasion) would be very different had we not grown up in Hayley’s shadow, despite her missteps along the way. It’s unfortunate that she stands relatively alone as a woman of her level of success in the genre, but she is phenomenal. ‘Ain’t it fun living in the real world? Ain’t it good being all alone?’

 

 

Salt-N-Pepa – None of Your Business

 

Another early ’90s classic, this track calls out the double standards of perceived promiscuity before ‘slut shaming’ appeared in a single think piece. It even features a message of support for sex workers, even if lacking in nuance. ‘If I want to take a guy home with me tonight, it’s none of your business/And if she wants to be a freak and sell it on the weekend, it’s none of your business.’

 

Sleater-Kinney – #1 Must Have

 

Another band to grow out of the riot grrrl movement, this track sees Sleater-Kinney decry the watering down of feminism in the name of capitalism and marketing – a grievance which is no less relevant today, nearly two decades after its release. ‘And I think that I sometimes might have wished/For something more than to be a size six/But now my inspiration rests/In-between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills.’

 

Lauryn Hill – Doo-Wop (That Thing)

 

A treasure of hip hop and neo-soul, it seems apt to end with Lauryn Hill and this anthem for female confidence. Detailing the difficulties of relationships and the additional burdens carried by women, Hill insists: ‘Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem, baby girl.’

 

 

My Body, Myself, and You

Let me start out by noting that this is in no way an attempt to put myself down, or cry ‘woe is me’ in search of compliments. Self deprecation is a defence mechanism I’ve perfected over the years, but something I’m trying to cut back on as I get older. This, on the other hand, is more like an elephant in the room that I feel particularly uncomfortable acknowledging. But it affects everything I do, every interaction I have, and so I probably should.

Echoing the experiences of almost every woman I know, my body and I have never been on great terms. I learned very young that my appearance was very important, and it took nearly a decade for me to begin to deconstruct that line of thinking. Sadly, its deconstruction didn’t lessen the effect, and really only produced a kind of inner conflict – my appearance doesn’t define me, yeah, to hell with your beauty standards, I have plenty to offer so it shouldn’t matter how long I had to do my hair this morning. Except that it still will matter, no matter how silly I know that to be.

I am so very hesitant to claim a divide between myself and other women, particularly regarding our shared experience of womanhood and how generally privileged I am in that respect. But being surrounded by countless beautiful women, so strong, charming and fantastic as they are, highlights that when it comes to a lot of things – ‘body positivity’ and beyond – we’re coming at it from very different places.

An overwhelming majority of my friends are conventionally very attractive women. They’re a compassionate, understanding bunch who would scold me the second I even hinted at the possibility that I’m maybe, potentially, not quite as hot as Beyonce. They couldn’t be more supportive and so it’s no fault of theirs that they don’t understand, or maybe even think about, how different certain situations are for us.

We’re all well aware that as women, our appearances carry a lot more weight (and thus our personalities carry less) than if we weren’t. We can never escape being looked at before we are listened to, and that’s a truth I wouldn’t dream of denying to any woman. But as someone who doesn’t really reach that bar of ‘conventionally attractive’, I’ve grown accustomed to feeling a few steps behind them at all times.

I constantly feel that I have something to prove. I feel that I must be so funny, so insightful, so understanding, so confident that people forget what I look like – as if with every witty remark, another piece of this cursed outer shell which I can’t detach myself from falls away to reveal more of who I am. Most of the time I have to try twice as hard as my gorgeous sisters to convince someone to find me interesting (and I’m generally someone you need to know for a little while before I’m confident enough to really be myself, so this is especially frustrating). As I search for a post-uni job, I’m more often overcome by visions of walking into an interview and being written off before I even sit down than I am by worries that I’m not competent (I’m backed by the statistics here, too).

In social situations, I often feel I have to fight to avoid periods of time spent not really being talked to by anyone, while people flock to my attractive friends (and I’m not talking romantically here. That is a whole ‘nother ballgame). This is a bit of a catch-22, of course, as being so uncomfortable in the body I inhabit impedes my confidence chronically, so I sometimes struggle to put myself out there in the first place. And if I let my dry sense of humour show too much, I know that I’m more likely to be viewed as, well, just a bit of a sarcastic cow rather than feisty or forward in a *hot* way.

Women all have a hyper-awareness of the physical space they exist in, but that’s heightened if you’re not attractive. The thing is: with the way our society functions, being conventionally attractive gives you a clean slate. If you’re funny, you’re funny, you’re not ugly but funny. You can walk into a room of strangers and know that they’re unlikely to have compartmentalised you in their minds before you even introduce yourself. It’s only human to judge others, absolutely, but if you’re not attractive you’re far less likely to even have the privilege of being judged as a whole person.

I worry that to someone who can’t empathise, this may seem melodramatic, so I feel it worth pointing out that despite the pages and pages of detail I could go into – this dimension of my identity has become something so omnipresent that I often go periods of time without noticing it. I don’t live a sexless, isolated life sitting in a corner and wishing someone would notice me. I still believe I’m of value, I still know I have a lot to contribute to the lives intertwined with my own, and I actually like myself more than ever. But in all the cool things I’m able to spend my days doing, I can’t help but feel I’m viewed as inherently lesser than attractive women.

There’s a lot of self-doubt involved, sure, but this has become less an insecurity and more a bitter acceptance of where I stand. I can acknowledge it or I can be in denial, but this will be the reality of myself and many others no matter what I think of it. Some days I have the energy to propel myself forward those few steps, but some days I don’t.

I’m of the opinion that there’s an inherent shame attached to less attractive women asserting that they’re as valuable as any other, and that’s something I’m not immune to, so even publishing this leaves me feeling a bit exposed. I could easily natter away about mental health, my childhood, anything else so personal without much worry, yet voicing that I feel I’m sometimes treated as ‘unattractive woman’ rather than ‘woman I know nothing about’ (or even ‘Hannah’) makes me very uncomfortable.

It ties back in with my avoidance of self deprecation, too. If someone is going to think about your flaws, they’re going to do so regardless, and you pointing your own flaws out for them won’t do you many favours. I don’t want someone with only a half-formed opinion of me to think of only my appearance from now on, because I placed such a spotlight on it in this instance. And I wouldn’t want a potential suitor to read this (James McAvoy, if you’re out there…) and write me off because I sit here and explain to them in detail why I am an unattractive prospect. Like I mentioned previously: it is so difficult for women to transcend their appearance, and even writing about mine feels like risking erasing myself for good.

This is, perhaps, why writing about it feels so necessary, and why writing is so important to me in general – this way, I can only be measured by syntax and font.

Male Feminists and the Safety Net of Cynicism

Like many women, as a teen I was internalised misogyny personified. I took great satisfaction in my guy friends telling me I “[wasn’t] like most girls”, that I was straightforward and low maintenance, that “most girls are just so much drama”. Looking back, I realise that what this really meant was that no one was particularly interested in winching me in the playpark across the road – my somewhat limited romantic interaction with my small-town peers meant that there was little opportunity for me to require much emotional investment. It wasn’t as necessary for us to navigate the emotional minefield that are relationships formed within the bubble of your local high school. But, regardless, I was proud that I stood out from “most” girls, the ones who dared to expect a certain level of respect and kindness from the boys who wanted a stake in their girlhood.

I grew up, of course, moved away, found a community at university, and was introduced to intersectional feminism (though I guess the internet deserves a bigger shout out for that one). Unfortunately, the role I had subconsciously identified for myself – a sounding board for men – followed me into adulthood, and it’s something I try to shake off even today.  I have to consciously remind myself that my value doesn’t lie in my ability to be a blank slate with ears and no voice, ready to listen to a man’s woes and coo softly until he feels validated. I’m often told that I’m appreciated for my understanding nature, but rarely for my opinions, and that’s a problem. How do I know when I’m offering a friend unconditional support, like I absolutely want to, or when I’m trying to prove my worth to a man by absorbing his issues as if they are my own?

It turns out that being surrounded by self-proclaimed male feminists doesn’t make this any easier. Many of them seem to consider themselves a sort of neutral observer, meaning they have a free pass to comment on whatever they wish without it holding the same weight as if it had come from, y’know, an actually misogynistic man. This has resulted in me (and lots of the women around me) having developed a new kind of wariness around our male feminist pals, particularly the most outspoken ones – the ones who are by saying they are, rather than by doing. The ones who will post feminist article upon feminist article, before turning to me at a party and calling a mutual friend a “slut”. The ones who admit that they “don’t really see the point” in body positivity. The ones who seem to project the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope onto every woman they get close to. Some men have a way of speaking to women which errs more on the side of lecturing regardless of conversation topic, and it tends to be those ones.

Bizarrely, recent pop culture shenanigans involving a Mr & Mrs West and a Ms Swift were what really brought this to the forefront of my mind. All three could (and have) inspire(d) thousands of think pieces in the name of intersectionality, but what really got me was the insinuation by more than one “male feminist” that any criticism directed towards Taylor Swift by a woman is a sure symptom of internalised misogyny. This is, at best, a lack of self awareness; or worse, an unsurprising but still disturbing example of how men use feminism as a tool, twisting it to suit their agenda and winning themselves brownie points in the process. It’s not even a necessarily inaccurate observation – Taylor Swift is pop’s ultimate sweetheart, with a career plagued by misogyny on a level astronomical enough to match her record sales. But she has also branded herself as the face of white feminism, has a willingness to throw others under the bus in order to advance herself which has been proven time and time again, and is the biggest pop star on the planet. Chances are, a lot of people are talking about her because she’s a topic – a piece of pop culture escapism – which transcends well beyond the edges of your familiar internet echo chamber, and incites an opinion from many more people than just about anything else.

So is she at the receiving end of a lot of gender-based malice? Absolutely. And I might be less insulted by men’s accusations of internalised misogyny if I believed for even one second that if Beyonce, or Rihanna, or any of the other countless women of colour in the spotlight were in the same position, that men would also be running to her defence in the name of feminism. But I don’t, and they wouldn’t, and as women we don’t spend years un-learning disdain for our gender and allowing men into our movements just to be told that they know best.

The reality is that they will never completely ‘get it’ – ‘it’ being experiences unique to being a woman, the mental gymnastics girls have to do to deconstruct everything we were ever taught about femininity, as well as the almost obsessive preoccupation with our own motivations as a result of this self analysis – which is fine as long as they don’t take it upon themselves to overlook that in a quest to be Twitter’s Next Top Feminist.

Plenty of people would respond to this by pointing out that at least they’re trying. Surely it’s better to be supporting feminism in a misguided way than to not do so at all? How do you expect to win people over as feminists if you can’t even be grateful when people try to back your cause up just because they’re not perfect? Well, that works on the assumption that we only have two options, and I won’t accept that. While once I treasured my outspokenly feminist guy friends like I had struck gold, I’ve grown cynical and suspicious. I’d now say that the most feminist men I know are some who have never actually uttered the F word to me – I know from our conversations, our relationships, my knowledge of their intelligence and respect for others that they are reliably feminist (or feminist allies), it just being a facet of their personality instead of something they’ve latched onto as a branding technique. I know many, many, many men in whose company I’d feel far too intimidated to voice any gender equality-based opinions, but these days I feel similar about a lot of these feminist men: I’m too uncomfortable to bring it up if I can help it, in case I’m spoken over or put in my place.

I remember being on a date with a man, and him mentioning something about misogyny in passing. I felt immediate relief, thinking oh thank god he knows that’s a thing. He spoke about it like it exists, like it’s not a joke. The bar is really too low, and yet we practically fall over ourselves to heap praise on any man who seems fairly liberal. He calls himself a feminist, we’re suddenly desperate for his approval. He tells us that even though he respects all women, we’re “not like most of them”. We’re suddenly fifteen again, and the cycle continues. I’m sure this could be construed as confusing, certainly contradictory, but it’s not women’s responsibility to make this easy. It’s not easy and it’s not for men, so if they want to be part of the movement then it’s up to them to find their place as a source of support and an educational voice within the male population, rather than attempting to become a leader.

Just, please, for the love of god, avoid any man with ‘feminist’ in his Tinder bio.

Questions of Feminism

International Women’s Day fell on Saturday 8th March this year, an occasion which is actually a national holiday in countries like China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria. According to a website dedicated to the event, it’s “a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.” Some well-deserved recognition for us ladies and a middle finger to the patriarchy, then. Good.

It’s safe to say that we’re quickly becoming a more progressively-thinking society in general, so we can hope that complaints of “but what about an International MEN’s Day?” have been kept to a minimum (hint: it’s every other day). We can also hope that this means the long-overdue death of the stereotype of a bra-burning man-hating lesbian evoked by any reference to feminism for some. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian who sets uncomfortable underwear alight, but it’s difficult enough to open dialogue about the promotion of women in society when ‘feminism’ translates to ‘hatred of men and femininity’.

This is an issue brought to light time and time again in the saddest of ways when female celebrities denounce feminism for that very (misguided) reason. Of course, women in the media spotlight face a multitude of challenges when it comes to staying appealing and respected by consumer culture and they may not think publicly siding with a controversial social movement is in their best interests. Whether their statements come from ignorance or a desire to keep the ignorant on their side, they’re detrimental to a cause which exists to support them.

When asked if they would consider themselves feminists, the following stars responded:

  • Kelly Clarkson, when asked if she was a feminist, responded “No, I wouldn’t say feminist — that’s too strong.”
  • Lady Gaga: “I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture.”
  • Susan Sarandon: “I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches and because you want everyone to have equal pay, equal rights, education, and health care. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned word. It’s used more in a way to minimize you.”
  • Katy Perry: “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.’ Even Bjork: ‘[I don’t identify as a feminist] because I think it would isolate me. I think it’s important to do positive stuff. It’s more important to be asking than complaining.”
  • Taylor Swift (who faces a near unprecedented level of misogyny-guised-as-criticism): “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.”
  • Even girl group Little Mix, who released an album very much focused on the topic of girl power in 2013, insisted: “I wouldn’t say we’re feminists: we don’t hate our men.” These comments all appear to come from the same misunderstanding of what feminism is and unintentionally demonstrates why feminism is necessary – because there are plenty of people who would like us to believe that having a voice, having the audacity to point it out when mistreated is something to disassociate ourselves from. Because feminism is merely ‘complaining’.

That’s not to say that feminism is a black-and-white issue that comes complete with a set of guidelines. Just like the cultural issues faced by women, feminism is a deeply personal thing; I, for example, struggle to reconcile feminism without intersectionality with feminism at all. Of course some takes on feminism are questionable at best but those who are racist, transphobic and incapable of thinking outside the western hemisphere are not feminist because they do not support the struggles of women and therefore shouldn’t be used as examples to tarnish the name of a movement which strives for equality.

While it’s true that the perceived negative connotations surrounding feminism are the result of ignorance and often used as just another tool to attack women, perhaps educating people on the meaning of a word isn’t what’s most crucial at this point. Maybe we should spend the other 364 days of the year instead educating people on the realities of rape culture, the danger faced by transgender women and the countless other faults in society that render any claim that feminism is no longer necessary completely redundant. And wherever you’re reading this, fellow student of higher education, remember that the first ever university was founded by a woman.