Misogyny in millennials
|Illustration by Kate Gillett|
of an illegitimate voice
It has ceased to hear itself, therefore
it asks itself
How do I exist?
This was the silence I wanted to break in you.
When I recently studied feminist poetry at university I thought, ‘Finally, here are my people!’
No sentiment was more familiar to me than this sense of being silenced. A sense that I had been swallowing my own words, my own voice, overtime, separating myself again and again from my own instinctive perception of reality and accepting someone else’s instead.
When Donald Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy’ clip was released, an internal voice of mine quietly dismissed it alongside him, as locker room talk. Boys will be boys, it said, even as my stomach turned.
When Michele Obama, her voice shaking with emotion, expressed the horror of our bodies being spoken about this way, she broke my silence for me. She said,
‘It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body, or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long so you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.’She also said,
‘I can tell you that the men in my life do not talk about women this way. To dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere.’Which made me wonder, because many men in my life do talk about women this way— and I’m a millennial! The feminist movement of my mother’s generation was supposed to have taken care of this.
The men I’ve been with have always been kind, gentle, good men. But I remember overhearing my boyfriend’s mates around a campfire, talking about what hot fucks their girlfriends were, with amazing tits, looking over at my boyfriend to participate. He laughed awkwardly. He didn’t join in, but nor did he challenge the tone of that conversation.
Which perhaps explains why the first time we made love, afterwards he asked me, ‘I thought the rug always matched the drapes?’ Something crumbled inside me then. Silently. I never did speak up. Instead, I buried the shame and embarrassment of growing something I hadn’t even known was distasteful.
It’s a given that I’ll wax my legs, shave my armpits, and as a minimum, trim my pubic hair. That I’ll choose underwear that won’t leave a line beneath my clothes but is still sexy at the moment he disrobes me. It’s assumed, at least for formal occasions, I’ll wear makeup that makes my eyes larger, my lips redder, my skin smoother. My boyfriend on the other hand will do none of the above, and will throw on an outfit minutes before we walk out the door.
If these seem like trivial bones to pick, then let’s discuss how many friends of mine have been sexually assaulted or raped. How often rape is eroticised on television and in film, and how women have to sit through that, pretending they aren’t triggered, looking sideways at their men and wondering if they’re turned on by it. Wondering if they, as women, are supposed to be turned on by it.
Adrienne Rich writes:
‘Women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted’ for centuries by refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us.’She wrote that in 1975, but her words illuminate my own millennial life perfectly. Some stunning highlights would include:
- Being described as melodramatic, precocious and bossy when I was a little girl.
- The memorable dinner my grandfather told my boyfriend ‘she needs a man who will take her in hand…’
- My older, female cousin, telling me a strong woman knows when to step back and build up her man.
- The many impassioned declarations by mothers that the most meaningful thing a woman could do with her life is have children.
- The frequent reminders of the risks of later-life pregnancy.
All of which, unsurprisingly, saw me walking down the aisle in my grandmother’s veil at the ripe, wise age of twenty-six, to a gentle man I had learned to step back and make room for, with a family planned before the age of thirty.
Because if I had actually tuned into the truth of my own body, I would have taken more notice of the crippling anxiety and constant fatigue. It takes a lot of energy to constantly second guess your own instincts trying to align yourself with the framework laid out by somebody else. Adrienne Rich describes this perfectly too. She calls it ‘the female fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being’.
All of this I might be able to chalk up to massive personal failing, a catastrophic lack of insight, except when I speak to girlfriends, this is what they tell me of their experience as millennial women:
- I was told be content with doing classical music because women can't play jazz.
- I get told ‘You ride bikes well.... for a girl,’ after beating lots of men.
- ‘That’s a beginners wave, it should suit you.’ —I’ve been surfing for TWENTY EIGHT YEARS!
- Someone told me I wouldn't ever be allowed in a rocket because they don't like girl astronauts. I believed them and remember deciding that I better pick something else instead.
- I wanted to work on a prawn trawler for my year nine work experience but was told it wasn't for females.
- ‘So, I'm guessing you must be a dominatrix in the bedroom then?’ — in response to me expressing my views passionately!
- At work — ‘Don't be nervous about giving this presentation! No one will worry about what you say, they will just be looking at your body.’
- I consider myself lucky that all I've experienced is being stalked and ALMOST raped (along with countless other incidents of verbal harassment, including at work and having my body touched without consent). At least three women close to me have been violently raped (and they are just the ones I know of), and I can't think of one who hasn't experienced sexual harassment just for being a woman.’
In sport, in the arts, in work, women of my generation have received strong messages defining what they can and cannot do with their lives. We are still saturated with the message that failing to have a child is failing to be a complete woman.
Granted, women in places like Australia and the US aren’t being married off at the age of sixteen, denied education or employment, but it’s abundantly clear feminism has a long way go. Trump’s victory has thrown up a stark and awful reflection of just how far.
Maybe it is because we thought these battles were won that my generation stopped speaking about them. But near enough is not good enough, as evidenced by the way misogyny has climbed down into yet another generation of men and women. Patriarchy is alive and well, internalised within us and swaggering into the White House.
We cannot remain silent. Women must find their way to the truth of their bodies, and speak their lived experience. We need to talk with other women about these incidences so they are brought to life, instead of buried in shame; so we can see the persuasive undercurrents shaping our lives.
We need to tell him that his ‘locker-room talk’ makes us feel nauseous.
Need to tell the men on the couch beside us how hard it is to watch the woman raped on screen, how it reminds us of when that was us.
We need to let our husbands know everything we were told we could not be, and begin whispering the dreams we secreted away.
We need to let loose and discover what we are at full throttle, instead of holding back cautiously to make room for our men.
We need to challenge them to keep up and take them tumbling over their own known frontiers, out into the galaxy beyond patriarchy.