Equality must be more than two white halves in adversarial balance

A few days ago, Bitch Media’s Megan Kearns pointed to the shortcomings of Patricia Arquette’s now infamous take on gender inequality, as she offered them on and behind the stage of the Oscar’s. Arquette’s idea that “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men who love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve fought for, to fight for us now” pissed Kearns off. I share her frustration. The growing online public conversation around gender equality and feminism may have become a more popular media topic the past years (which is a good thing), but since it’s mostly white self-proclaimed feminists who drive the discourse, the media carry the historical flaw of Western academic feminism’s widespread reluctance to take race, class or sexuality seriously right into the public sphere, popularizing a notion of ‘gender equality’ that is relevant to some and seriously harmful to others. As Kearns and others have already noted, not all women are middle class, white or straight. And the fight for real gender inequality, where LGBT people are actually treated as equals, and black women are paid and treated equal to white women, is far from won.

It’s not just the media and white feminists like Arquette who drive the idea that gender inequality is a matter of straight men versus straight women. Development organizations, such as the United Nations, play their own part in turning these un-nuanced notions into popular common sense. That’s a problem, particularly now that the UN mobilizes more and more celebrities, such as Victoria Beckham who believes girls should dress like girls, to get the word out.

The notion that the world’s main axis of inequality centers around sex is part of a larger and rapidly swelling discourse within the gender and development world, that frames the problem of gender inequality in a particular way: straight-men (and culture and tradition, of course) control and restrain straight women. A gender equal utopia from this point of view will emerge when straight men have been successfully convinced to stop controlling straight women. Essentially, this was the recently expressed position of UN Good Will Ambassador Emma Watson.

The UN is currently working on a new global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that sets the standards for development for the next fifteen years. “This is the century of women”, reads the 51st goals of the UN’s current version for the SDGs. “We will not realize our full potential if half of humanity continues to be held back”.

Patriarchy is real, yes. Compared to men, women carry the brunt of violence, yes. Nevertheless, the world isn’t just divided by sex, not all humans are straight and not all men are driven by an essential craving to own or control, or even kiss, a woman. Referring to women as the held-back ‘half of humanity’ in this way echoes Nicholas Kristof. He insists women are the held back half at the same time he wants us to cheer, twice even, for sweatshops and conceive women as unexploited resources. Kristof portrays men and women as simply monolithic, adversarial and heterosexual. He sees men and women, all men and all women, as inevitably divided by patriarchy. They are not. Problematic and oppressive gendered stereotypes are not just perpetuated by possessive heterosexual men, and they don’t just hurt ‘their’ women. Homophobia, Queerphobia, Lesbophobia and Transphobia are acted out by both men and women and need to be part of the conversation. Organizations like the UN have a lot of power to correct the flawed utopias of Kristof, Arquette and the like. The new development agenda can play a huge role here. So let’s watch this space.

(Photo Credit: Zanele Muholi / The Williams College Museum of Art)

 

About Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld studies women’s rights at Columbia University. She is interested in youth and gender in Southern Africa and writes for different websites, such as Africa is a Country, The Feminist Wire, and Tijdschrift Lover. You can follow her on Twitter at @HengeveldMaria.