I wish I hadn’t

God, I wish I hadn’t. I read an article awhile back that said to make a man commit a woman should be like a wild horse, show herself and then turn away. FFS. I just tried to find it by googling ‘a woman should be like …’ You can imagine (whisper): a butterfly, a single flower, the sun. I could go on. In the Urban Dictionary ‘wild horse’ has the definition: An amazing woman with beautiful hips, that makes a man feel like a wild beast. She is a keeper, but almost impossible to tame and to tie down. She has the tendency to break hearts, but only because she’s hard to control. Oh yeah, and if you didn’t already know it takes a real man to tame a wild horse.

The whole thing just makes me want to cry. I’ve almost come to terms with the idea that I live in a world where my teeth should be whiter than snow, my eyelashes lusher than a camel’s, my waist thinner than a twelve year old’s, legs longer than a giraffe’s neck … and don’t forget I also need an acceptable career, preferably some sort, any sort, of Doctor or Lawyer, probably even a Dentist might cut the proverbial mustard. It wouldn’t hurt if I also either ran marathons, played an instrument or sang in a jazz band, preferably all three. To top it off, if I don’t possess the body of Kim Kardashian I ought to be at least ten years younger than my intended partner, wild horse or no wild horse.

I’m sort of, trying to, struggling with the idea that I live in a time when The Bachelor is okay, with pretty much everyone and doesn’t seem strange, objectifying or downright silly. Did you see Dickie Bach’s (thanks Rosie) face when blond model number eight said she’d studied biomedical science? It sounded smart and Dickie Bach grunted ‘sold!’

In the Daily Mail’s You Magazine, Helen Mirren said, ‘women are still toddlers in the modern world, trying to find their position in the age of sexual liberation, birth control, education and financial independence.’ And we are.

The reporting on the Olympics has shown that, with constant focus on women’s physical attributes rather than their sporting achievements, women reported on in relation to who their spouses are and even such gems as this from The Guardian back in 2012:

 

Now it’s hard not to admire the commitment that some of the young, nubile female athletes have made to toning their physiques for our viewing pleasure. But that in itself is nothing more than I can see on several special-interest websites I favour – where, believe me, there are far happier endings than simply a gold medal.

 

I rest my case. Further attestation to our toddler status is evidenced in the Stella Count findings. Across publications, books by male authors are still being reviewed more frequently than books by women, and are given more space and prominence. The effects of this having been detailed by Aviva Tuffield in Female authors help broaden men’s horizon’s (The Age, Sept 2014) and in Adam Ford’s Who’s looking out for male authors (Overland, June 25, 2015). It’s fairly obvious that there is a disparity in whose voices are being heard and being portrayed as important. And this isn’t happening just in literature.

What worries me is that it was rare that male reviewers reviewed books by female authors. To me, it begs the question are many men just not interested in understanding a woman’s perspective in any meaningful way?

According to The Teacher Workforce (March 2015) only one third of Secondary English teachers are male. Men tend to teach subjects like physics, chemistry and computing, women languages and literature. At a glance the 2016 VCE English text list represents a fairly even spread of male and female authors. This is largely thanks to the advocacy of the Stella Prize team who have been pushing for a more even gender representation in VCE texts since 2014. In 2014 texts by male authors made up nearly seventy per cent of the list and last year that dropped to sixty-one per cent. The problem is that the text selection is slow to change within individual schools.

Catherine Andrews is an ambassador of the Stella Prize and came out urging schools to select an even ratio of texts by male and female authors citing that the choice of texts and whose voices we hear send a message about whose voices are more significant and limit our ideas about who we can be (Premier’s wife calls for gender equality in VCE texts, The Age, March 22, 2016).

A friend who teaches English at an all boys’ Secondary school in Melbourne told me about teaching Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites to her class. She said that one male colleague asked her to come and speak to his students because he was concerned they were missing a female perspective. Another male colleague consistently denigrated Kent’s text, criticising it for only representing reprehensible male characters. More positively, her students had understood the complex historical and societal implications in the idea of history as HIS-story and had been able to identify that the character of Blondal represented blind and violent masculine authority and Toti, the young reverend’s assistant, was a more rounded example of a man who still struggled to relate to Agnes as a woman.

She found aspects of her male colleagues reaction to the text disheartening but was encouraged by how well her students understood that the novel was about giving a voice to someone who hadn’t had one, and how with that one added voice history is changed. It demonstrated the importance of one voice, not just to add a tone, but to change the entire landscape. Those voices are fundamental and too often it’s women’s voices that are missing.

Recently, I read Stephen King’s On Writing and enjoyed it, but one part riled me. I’m aware he’s a man known for his action and proud of it and I don’t read widely in his genre but now it’s what comes to mind when I think of this book and that’s unfortunate. He says:

 

Messrs Strunk and White don’t speculate on why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close his eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty … It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and its frequently tortuous, as well.

 

Pretty much all of this bothers me. It seems to come from such a masculine surety. Perhaps men who are timid lovers like passive partners, I doubt women who are timid lovers do. But really, it’s a pretty crap analogy for use of the passive voice in writing. I agree that passive voice in Stephen’s genre would be inappropriate but why not admit that it’s another level of meaning that is perfectly serviceable if you want to, say, highlight the importance of the sentence object over the subject. I think too frequently men explain away subtleties that they don’t want to take the time to examine as weak or superfluous. Diversity is not weak.

Wild horses are weak. They’re mirages. No woman is a wild horse. And someone who wants a woman to be like a wild horse probably isn’t stable enough for any kind of long term, fulfilling relationship. Women are complex and diverse. We’re neither commodities, status props nor longevity elixirs.

I’m thankful for organisations like the Stella Prize and women like Helen Mirren. We need to advocate for one another, to continue to speak up, and to continue to redesign a world that doesn’t meet our needs.

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About duendest (Tina Cartwright)

Tina Cartwright grew up on the East Coast in the South of New Zealand. She lives and works in Melbourne. Her children’s picture book, Kiwi and Scorpion, was published with Penguin NZ in 2008. She edited and translated Taking Latin America Home – a self-published anthology influenced by Latin America which raised funds for the Sweet Water Fund in Nicaragua.

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