Last month I graced the overground line’s replacement bus service to Gospel Oak, north London. Sitting near some posh teens chatting about a party, I heard one boy snicker: “I have never so wanted to slap a girl as I did then.”
Everyone laughed and nodded.
Cut to a Starbucks in Holborn. Four sleek, Middle Eastern guys, the type who look like sophisticated, multilingual diplomats’ kids. They’re gossiping about their classmates.
One is laughing so hard he can barely speak: “That Saira, she is the fucking ugliest girl I have ever seen in my life!”
Or how about a tube journey last winter. A group of tracksuited, pimply London “youths.”
One of them mentions a schoolmate and another replies: “Yeah, but she’s a slag, though, isn’t she?”
All nod sagely.
This is the casual sexism of strangers — strangers of difference races, classes, ages, cultures. They know that when the conversation flags, a joke at a woman’s expense will revive the atmosphere in a twinkle.
Sometimes I don’t need to use my supersonic skills to eavesdrop on this toxic matter. My own friends serve it up. An agent pal tells me he had to chase a publisher because “some bloody middle-aged woman didn’t read the manuscript.”
A once-beloved writer friend relates how he Googles his exes, “and they all look like hags.”
Another man liked a book: “And I was dubious, you know, because it’s a woman author.”
An urbane friend spotted a chic girlfriend of mine at a party: “Who’s that whore over there?”
Not to mention what goes on at work. A photographer at a liberal publication discovered she and her female colleagues were paid less than their male counterparts.
When she got pregnant, her boss told her: “You can’t be a photographer and a mother.”
We are not talking about six months embedded with Military Man-Trauma Unit Zero in the Democratic Republic of Macho, just shooting a house in Holland Park.
A radio producer recounted holiday tales of how he met “some tart from Thomas Cook.”
He showed me a picture of an author and jeered: “She’s had her teeth done, look, look.”
When I asked, “Please, don’t make stupid comments about women’s appearances, OK?” he got angry.
A female producer told me that when she recommended the excellent Quilts exhibition at the V&A to her boyfriend and father, they both jeered: “My boyfriend said, ‘Were most of the people there women? I bet they were.’”
Yes, Woman is truly jeer-worthy, and anything associated with Woman is jeer-worthy too.
An acclaimed novelist told me that when she and a male author turned up to review books for a radio show, she was assumed to be doing his public relations by three different people before they even got inside the studio — where she was the only woman, and they only reviewed men’s books. A prominent academic constructed a literary course featuring equal numbers of male and female authors. Her male students complained that there were too many women.
Why don’t these women want to be named? Why don’t I expose the perpetrators? Because the victims will be punished and women’s jobs, opportunities and places will be lost. Belligerent women will be replaced by docile ones, or by men. So I say nothing, and we cling to our tenuous position and retain the privilege of working alongside the people whose “casual” sexism is nothing less than an integral part of a society steeped in contempt for women.
One night in 2008, I was on the radio discussing a lecture given by a prominent woman scientist earlier that day.
It was me and three men, and one of them said she was “a bit schoolmarmish — and what’s with the hair?”
When I objected he mocked: “Oh, yes, let’s all be feminists together, Bidisha.”
Once, I liked the candid manner of a crew member I met when filming an interview. We talked about David Beckham.
“He’s great,” said my new chum, “shame he’s married to a dog.”
My best friend’s dad, a lovely guy, one summer afternoon talking about actor Lucy Liu: “She looks like a bitch.”
Hags, dogs, whores, bitches. It’s amazing how much hate you can pack into a few syllables. How do you spot a woman-hater? By the way they talk about women, treat women, react to women, represent women. Bitching about women, slagging off women — even the language used to describe such slander comes from misogyny. The ubiquitous verbal violence supports physical violence and nobody, male or female, minds. If I were called a Paki in the street, I would have some hope of it being taken seriously. If I were called a slag — as I was last summer by a man on a bicycle, in Stepney — nobody would consider it report-worthy.
Misogyny is such a strong substance that women have absorbed and internalized it. A female book editor and I looked over some press shots by a woman photographer. Fifty-nine were perfect, the 60th was blurred.
“She’s been a bit of a silly tart, there,” said the editor.
A female radio producer, frustrated at a press officer’s incompetence: “I’ve been speaking to their bitch PR.”
Another radio producer, angry at a female guest who was two minutes late: “She’s a stupid bitch.”
An extremely sophisticated and gifted British-African writer, when I asked if her novel had come out in time for the Orange prize, sneered openly: “Ha! The Orange prize.”
No more words necessary, her contempt for the world of women was expressed in that immediately recognizable snort of disgust.
For men and women alike, casual misogyny is the climate and context of all their interactions. It is unconcealed and automatic. It affects the way women are received, portrayed and considered as colleagues, friends, workers, mothers, artists, thinkers, public figures and victims of male violence and discrimination. Apart from outright slander, jibes, names and insults there is: talking down a woman’s work, interrupting her, teasing her, mocking her, talking over her, patronizing her, sighing or rolling one’s eyes when she talks, invading her personal space. The misogynists’ approach to women can be summed up thus: sneer, leer, exploit, ignore.
There is a final, huge, virtually universal form of casual sexism which is expressed in nearly every house. Any man who thinks it’s OK to live in a household where the woman does the overwhelming majority of all the housework, childcare and family admin is a woman-hater. If he weren’t, it would agonize him to live in such an unequal and exploitative setup.
So, what to do about casual sexism? Don’t perpetrate it yourself, call it when you see it and fight any man defending his misogyny or any woman defending her false consciousness. Or you could just turn up the radio and drown it out.
Here’s UK star Tinie Tempah’s new hit, Frisky: “I’m on a mission, don’t even want to kiss her, honey I won’t miss her when I’m done with her.”
Well done, young man, well done.
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