It was the ancient moment when a man says, as in the Gospel: “Woman, what is between you and me?”. The ancient instant of pity for women.
Years ago, a friend of mine with ruthless ideas about the female gender recommended a series of four novels to me, written by Montherlant: The Girls. This reading spread to our small circle. We were young and fervent readers and also pretty balanced in terms of gender composition (two boys and three girls), which made us an excellent laboratory for observing Montherlant’s highly refined misogyny. The narrator Costals actually uses caricatural female protagonists (meet Andrée Hacquebaut: a hysterical lover who flaunts a posturing intellectualism to attract his attention, and Solange: a bit ninny but so dear) to demonstrate his thesis on women, quite disturbingly declared from the beginning:
Girls are like abandoned dogs, one cannot wade through them with a little benevolence without them believing that you are calling them, that you will welcome them and without being able to avoid that they put their paws on your pants, wagging their tails.
It makes you shiver, right? But it might actually shock that much only because we are used to a less forthright contempt, that is mostly dissolved in our culture. Modern misogyny is more of a veiled idea, which one usually condones without actually knowing it, and that is just why it is able to get active and passive consensus – also among women. The cultural background we live in has actually absorbed and hidden male chauvinism in many ordinary and apparently harmless ideas that are being spread in imperceptible ways. As such, it is way more damaging than Montherlant’s provocations. Today’s cultural representation of women – that is to say, the media’s – is not only anachronistic but dreadfully demeaning, as brilliantly documented by Jennifer Siebel Newsom (and by all theRepresentation Project team’s works) available on Netflix: Miss Representation (read: Misrepresentation).
This discomfort undoubtedly concerns women in first place, pulling at the most sensitive strings of their psyche. But a sick perception of women makes a society pathological in itsvision of men too, and forces both genders into a neurotic relationship. Our cultural “woman” and “man” labels are indeed very reductive and so they are shaping narrow perceptions and minds that are being taught to deny human complex reality. We are passively learning to apprehend ourselves and our environment as one unique model and to consider as abnormal any other reality that does not fall under this pattern. This impoverishes both our social experiences and our intellectual abilities. Contemporary feminism must call our culture into question, and especially what’s at stake at a social level in it, for our culture not only affects what we think but also – and this is the most underhand threat – how we think, the very structure of our capacity to elaborate ideas. Thinking outside one’s own culture is therefore a taxing undertaking that lies in persistently doubting our own ideas and thoughts that have settled in us subconsciously. These ideas can be especially hard to identify. This is why, as a mind-changer, feminism requires the utmost of our critical sense (especially that of women).
To be effective, the redefinition of Feminism needs to reconnect to its present analyzing and responding pragmatically to social needs. This current state of inequality was first and foremost made possible by a combination of circumstances – and of powers – in which the institutional complicity has played a key role, especially in regulating the work environment. In addition to wage inequality, the workplace is indeed an illustrative showcase of how such a toxic idea of femininity can incubate wider issues. The public debate on this matter, however, is now significantly changing in its form as well as in its deeper roots since men are also taking the floor against this cultural heritage. And they are speaking up along with women not out of altruism or out of pity for them, but because they truly need a new model of virility. In France – a country still lagging behind on this kind of equality, despite thenational motto – it is the fathers who have raised the issue of paternity leave (11 days, including weekends + 3 days for the birth against 10 months for the woman). But, what does the idea that a woman has the duty to nurture a newborn during the first 10 months of life imply in our collective imagination? Even more than this: on top of those two types of leave (maternity and paternity), there is a third one, so called “parental leave” – meaning it can be used by both father and mother. The only problem is that the compensation is so low (€ 300-400 per person per month in France) that 97% of these types of leave are requested by women since they usually have the expendable salary in a couple. So women will have to put their careers on hold, thus losing access to higher salaries. It seems like a vicious circle doesn’t it? Other countries like Sweden provide 480 days to be divided between father and mother, Finland gives six months for both father and mother – and they are mandatory. Symbolically, the fact that the father has the same right and the same duty as the mother towards the newborn is a key factor in defeating the Ingalls family model (for those under thirty, I’m referring to the very vintage showThe Little House on the Prairie, which is a perfect example of how the cultural representation of the family in the 70s is still proudly based on a male breadwinner model and heir to a pre-war machismo) and of the manual of the perfect housewife Mad men style (frighteningly current model in the workplace). So, if the French Secretary of State Adrien Taquet succeeds in extending paternity leave, it will constitute a concrete and crucial lever in the development of equality. An employer who before valued hiring a woman as a risk because of a possible pregnancy will finally have to consider the same risk for a man. Plus, if paternity leave could counterbalance maternity leave, a woman could also go back to work being able to choose her own balance between family and work.
The redefinition of the balance between work and family life goes hand in hand with a reconsideration of the function of the man within the couple and this redistribution of roles – Dual Earner / Dual Carer model (DEDC) – must be supported by a specific type of state welfare, as pointed out by the SAAGE studies:New visions for gender equality (in particular the article by F. Luppi and A. Rosina: “From a single breadwinner model to two breadwinners to double earner / carer – do we need a new model?”). If we agree that contemporary Feminism should aim at promoting an egalitarian society, it therefore needs to involve men as active participants in the social revaluation of women. It also needs the public institutions commitment in legitimizing and guaranteeing the common recognition of this new model of society. The change of mentality actually requires stronger social investment and institutional support. This is because the “women issue” is not a female one but is actually a collective emergency that’s affecting society beyond the gender question; and the good news is that it’s coming out. For instance, the fact that the difference of treatment between mother and father has been picked up as an injustice by men is a clear sign that the whole society is calling for a change and a new model of man and fatherhood.
The desire of a more inclusive society is also claimed by women’s voices. They are showing a new path for feminist commitment that is one of speech: speaking our own truth to regain control over our image. This is the new way of fighting woman’s old cultural perception to create a new (and more real) one. In fact, many issues considered to be purely feminine are making their way into the public debate. Personally, I was struck by how reckless the issue of childbirth was until a few years ago: when you think about it, this phenomenon has been taken for granted by humanity for so long, and we are just beginning to realize how traumatic it may be for women. Only today, men – but also young women who have not experienced this moment – can get a different representation from the widely-spread stereotype of a happy and blissful motherhood. So these testimonies have a crucial function in feminist development because they literally reshape the idea of womanhood by introducing an important part of one’s feminine reality. They are therefore essential in regaining control of representation from the male-dominated culture that has created superficial stereotypes and unfair expectations towards us. A new mother may not be filled with joy after the physical, psychological upheaval and change of life that childbirth entails: that’s something to take into account when thinking about how womanhood and motherhood can coexist in a new life balance, I guess.
Another example of an insightful female voice – which is also addressed to men – is that of Maia Mazaurette and her effort making the “true sexual revolution” happen. I enthusiastically recommend the reading of her book Sortir du trou (literally “To get out of the hole”, but figuratively it’s actually a semantic pun with the French expression meaning “to get out of a Czech alley, to find a way out of a problem”).
English subtitles available:
In this brilliant sex education lesson, Maia explains how sexuality, as a common – but not so much shared – experience for both genders, reflects most distinctly the paradoxes and damages of the socio-cultural diktat. Sexuality is indeed an area heavily media-manipulated and particularly permeable to the stereotypical representation of women, men and sex in general, creating experiences that are increasingly distant from human reality. But as emphasized by Maia, as “we are the culture”, the power to cast a new light on this lies in us. This prison made of sociotypes and cultural conditioning is actually reversible only by us – women and men – and it must be done for us, for a common good.
The violent and self-defeating neuroses of today’s society have grown in the shadow of the skimpy and obtuse representations of women and the consequent glorification of an omnipotent virility. They are the product of a past cultural heritage that must be overcome. The female representation that we have inherited is not only inappropriate, it is obsolete and inconsistent for the whole of contemporary society. But a new definition of woman needs with it a new feminism. Thought patterns must change, we must demand a deepening of reflections on parity and equality that are still too superficial, and we must do it in a self-critical way, always questioning our thinking where the germs of this culture are buried and have become invisible . For example, we need to call into question the sense of a feminism that is rooted in division and which – like post-war machismo – reproduces a binary and myopic vision focused on gender warfare without a horizon of reconciliation for society. Also perplexing is the sense of equality that would consist in creating a female model identical to the male one, thus realizing the counterproductive denial of one’s value in order to adopt and consecrate the male one as the only reference.
Our reality calls for immediate actions and long-term actions that must bring a cultural change with respect to the idea of women. Until now, the creation of a representation paradoxically excluded women, so I believe that the act of a feminist re-foundation must consist in re-introducing the word of women. That is why the most relevant examples in this attempt are the ones that are revolutionizing the modus operandi of feminism and they are precisely those in which women testify of their reality and their point of view. This however is not new, they have been doing it since the 1960s. The novelty is that they are doing it by setting up a dialogue, questioning not only men but above all the collective mentality. The characteristic of the new feminism is that it is dialogic: it is expanding its scope of action. It is no longer feminism for women against men but feminism of women and men for society and against a cultural heritage that has been intoxicating both of them. It is a turning point that must be metabolized and understood by all actors to be effective and significantly “move” the thought patterns. On the other hand, we are noticing the symptoms of this type of dysfunction in many other aspects of our social and political life where we simply have failed to summarize our differences for a common good. It is now up to our generation to implement realistic utopias for tomorrow. Montherlant’s bitter “pity for women” must become a concern of all for the next generations: we must have pity for our children.