The Anti-Women Attitude inside Us
Discrimination comes from outside – many people think. Yet we all internalise misogyny. Why is that?
Misogyny, which is contempt of women and anything female, tends to be attributed to men. But in doing that, one element that plays a significant role in a sexist society is often insufficiently considered: the fact that every person internalises harmful role models, regardless of which gender they are. This means – apparently paradoxically – that women also harbour a misogynistic perspective within themselves, in other words they internalise the contempt of women, or misogyny.
As a teenager I spent all my pocket money on pilgrimages to concerts in my nearest city. Generally speaking, the bands I idolised had two common denominators: their names began with “The” and they all consisted of men. I didn’t see anything wrong in this gender distribution. On the contrary – I bragged about not listening to the kind of female musicians who had been branded pop tarts. I still remember liking myself in this role – I was different from the other girls.
This example is not a one-off. Many girls and women want to emphasise their multidimensionality and individuality by distancing themselves from the conventional female image. “I’m different from other women” is a statement they use to portray themselves in a positive light; this self-positioning is motivated by praise such as “You’re different from other women” – which, intentionally or not, shows contempt for “other women”.
We grow up with gender roles that are brimming with pejorative images of women: superficial tarts, dumb blondes, ugly witches. In the case of positive roles though, there is often a lack of depth: a princess who is only kidnapped, saved or awoken by a kiss offers little identification potential. No wonder that we distance ourselves sooner or later. After all, who would want to step into a role like that?
Discrimination from within the GroupMost people imagine discrimination as nastiness coming from the majority and bombarding the minority. What we don’t usually imagine within the concept of discrimination is that the discriminated group can contribute to it themselves. If we all grow up in a world that usually portrays women in a derogatory manner, it doesn’t just characterise men’s image of women. It also characterises women’s image of women. Where are women supposed to find a positive, multidimensional and encouraging gender model if a huge portion of the social narrative is negative, one-dimensional and dispiriting?
Case Study: Disney Films – Why Female Characters Have so Little DialogueLet’s take a look at a popular culture favourite: Disney films. There are statistics comparing the amount of dialogue given to male characters with that of female characters. (And tellingly almost every character, whether they are real animals or fairy-tale creatures, is gendered.) The fact that in The Jungle Book 98 percent of the dialogue is taken up by male characters is not especially surprising. But what about the films in which female characters play key roles? Jasmine, who has to deal with paternalism in Aladdin, has to assert herself against a 90 percent male dialogue. But a particularly striking example is Mulan: in the eponymous film the teenager pretty much saves the whole of China. And how much male dialogue is she up against with her heroic act? 75 percent. Even better: Mulan’s little male dragon talks twice as much as she does. Even when a Disney princess saves the whole of China she’s verbally eclipsed by an annoying mini-dragon.
That might seem somewhere between funny and harmless. And yet it begs the question as to how these forms of representation define not only men’s image of women, but also the internalised misogyny of women. If we’re used to the idea that even the female heroines of our children’s films are barely given a quarter of the dialogue – then how do we perceive women who are bold enough to take up half the dialogue? Let alone more? The cliché that women talk too much and yet don’t have much to say endures stubbornly in our minds. No wonder – if we scarcely hear female characters talking, then we quickly feel overpowering and “too much” when we do occupy a space.
It isn’t just the amount of dialogue that propagates images of women. We only have to look at the female villains to see that. The evil women – not just in Disney films – are identified as such with clearly defined characteristics. They often have deep voices, sometimes they are fat, occasionally they have short hair. Think for instance of Ursula from The Little Mermaid. In short: evil women are often ugly women. Ugly – that’s everything that isn’t slim, young and harmless. We internalise these evil images of women together with the image of beauty. The waist size of a “good” princess is on a similar scale to the amount of dialogue she has.
Too much Make-up, too much Body Emphasis – the Narrow Boundaries of FemininitySo, as women, we are taught very precisely how we are supposed to look by media-influenced images that follow a narrowly defined catalogue of everything that’s considered “feminine”. Yet there are unwritten laws about when femininity becomes too feminine. Women wearing too much make-up are considered desperate. If women wear close-fitting outfits, they are told that they look promiscuous. Our language features a large number of words for all the things women can get wrong about being a woman: slut, floozy, whore, tart, witch, dyke. These narratives characterise women, who internalise and reproduce this constant critical perspective on themselves and their peers.
The unpleasant thing about internalised misogyny is that it doesn’t necessarily feel like discrimination. Nor even like nastiness. To many people, internalised hatred towards women seems like the personal opinion of one individual. It isn’t easy to spot that it’s systematic. The result is that women often contribute to their own oppression. The caveat is that they are not primarily responsible for it. But they do reproduce their own hostility – another trick up the sleeve of sexism.
Internalised misogyny goes hand-in-hand with a lack of solidarity. And therein lies the key to the problem: internalised misogyny can be un-learned when female solidarity is learned. By opening up female and male diversity. With representation and normalisation of the very different ways of being a woman. At the same time this sharpens the senses. And strengthens the individual for their next battle against dragons.