Moments that tore up the accepted script for women in 2015

Posted on December 16, 2015 in Equality Debates – Life/Holiday Guide
Dec. 16, 2015.   Sarah Hampson

I still have Mad Maxine on my mind as one of my favourite feminist moments of 2015.

To some male devotees of the blockbuster series, the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road felt like naughty subterfuge. Get the audience in the door with a promise of testosterone-fuelled action and brand it Mad Max, only to reveal, a quarter of the way through your bag of popcorn, that the story is more about Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa than a Mad Max character. She’s the one-armed warrior who escapes the capital in a war-ravaged dystopia with the five wives of a gruesome despot.

Oh, and wait – in the desert of this water-starved world, Furiosa – a nuanced portrait of the trope about the Angry Woman – reunites with a very cool matriarchal motorcycle tribe of wrinkly, white-haired characters called the Vuvalini of Many Mothers. They once lived in The Green Place, and now hoard seeds from their lost, healthy world.

There’s nothing like fementertainment to popularize a cultural shift that’s happening under our feet. George Miller, the Australian director of the Mad Max franchise, knew what he was doing – he got Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues to consult on the Fury script. And maybe part of the message was that a subversion of expectations, which the movie surely was, is only news to unenlightened few who haven’t twigged to the fact that cultural scripts for women and men – on screen and off – are changing.

How did we get here? Perhaps because more and more voices have challenged the accepted script of what it means to be a woman.

“One of the most important things about this year is how women’s voices have been amplified and given space,” comments Anuradha Dugal, director of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. There were many honest discussions about issues that lie beneath the surface of polite society, often dismissed, denied or silenced when they’re experienced. They include rape culture, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, gender identity, the undervaluing of caregiving and how men, if they dare to admit it, can’t have it all, either.

The year started with the scandal at Dalhousie University’s dentistry school – a perfect teaching moment on rape culture. It happened behind doors – in this case, a private Facebook group. But once exposed, the comments had the whole campus – and the country – talking about misogynistic behaviour that some men (and some women, including a few feminists) dismiss as innocuous and oafish. The campus sexual and gender identity resource centre started a hashtag, #DalHatesWomen, to draw attention to the problem they described as systemic.

I always think that the word “complaint” is problematic in the context of sexual harassment as it can suggest that women are childlike whiners who just can’t hack the rough-and-tumble of schoolyard antics. But that changed this year as well, when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled a $41-million #WhoWillYouHelp awareness campaign to bring an end to sexual violence and harassment, which she said was “rooted in misogyny.” It was a radical statement for a politician to make, and it brought a calm, pragmatic tone to the incendiary issue. Her voice made a difference.

Many others did, too. Ashley Callingbull, Mrs. Universe 2015, spoke out about the need for action on missing or murdered aboriginal women. Julie Lalonde, a sex assault prevention educator, publicly complained about verbal abuse from office cadets at Royal Military College. In the wake of last year’s Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby scandals, more women came boldly forward with sexual harassment complaints about powerful men, including Pan American Games chairman and former Ontario premier David Peterson and Marcel Aubut, former president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and chairman of the Canadian Olympic Foundation.

Last month, Alberta MLA Maria Fitzpatrick shared her story of terrifying abuse at the hands of her ex-husband. She was speaking in the Alberta Legislature in support of Bill 204, which would allow victims of domestic violence to break their leases without financial penalty, so they could flee abusive situations more easily. No one can witness Fitzpatrick’s harrowing account, the terror from 20 years ago still palpable in her voice, and not be struck by how far we’ve come – that a female leader can expose her history of vulnerability and be seen as more powerful because of it.

To me, though, it was the emergence of transgender truths that helped – albeit inadvertently – to advance discussion about the feminist goal of gender parity. When Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, made her debut on the cover of Vanity Fair, the conversation wasn’t just prurient – about the female hormones she takes, the satiny corset she wore, her legs, her cleavage, the cosmetic surgery – but also illuminating. Biological sex is not always matched with gender identity. And if gender identity can also be fluid – with some trans people fluctuating between feeling male or female and sometimes neither – then society’s rigid adherence to a male/female binary loses its significance and can be seen as little more than an arbitrary and meaningless organizing principle.

There are cultural scripts for all of us, but we don’t have to pay attention to them. The best book on the subject of conventional gender roles this year was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business:Women, Men, Work, Family. The former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, who left that job to return to academic life as a Princeton professor so she could spend more time with her teenagers, Slaughter calls on society to value the role of caregiving – no matter who does it. Men shouldn’t be ashamed of taking paternity leave. Male nurses shouldn’t be an anomaly. She writes about overcoming her own guilty feelings of not being a good mother when her husband did the majority of child care when she was commuting to Washington. Women have to let men take domestic leadership on issues once deemed a female responsibility. Let us not see caregiving roles as consolation prizes for parents who couldn’t make it in the corporate workplace, she implores.

We need more of that kind of open discussion. Look, I have sons. I see male privilege at play. And I also see that while there are advantages to being a white, straight male, there are also disadvantages . Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a filmmaker and thought leader, has been instrumental in shedding light on this topic. This year, she released a new documentary, The Mask You Live In, which explores how our narrow definition of masculinity harms boys, men and society at large. It is a follow-up to her first documentary, the award-winning Miss Representation in 2011, which examined how the media perpetuates the idea that girls and women are valued for their youth, beauty and sexuality rather than their capacity to lead.

Which brings me to a calendar for 2016 – the one for Pirelli, the high-end Italian tire manufacturer. It was not part of the Representation Project, but it could have been. Famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz came up with the new pin-up girl treatment. There were buttoned-up pin-ups of successful women. There was no total nudity and all but comedienne Amy Schumer and tennis star Serena Williams were completely clothed. It showed very clearly how things have changed, for here was a clever subversion of a clichéd conceit of the patriarchy. The Pirelli calendar used to feature pneumatic babes. The company used women to promote their product. And now women were using the company platform to promote their own message about meaningful accomplishment.

That was a terrific way to end the year and start a new one.

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