A modern challenge to gender inequality

Issue 

Your Skirt’s Too Short — Sex, Power, Choice
By Emily Maguire
2010, The Text Publishing Company

“Does your boyfriend or brother spend a lot of money on skin and hair care products?”

“Do the majority of fathers you know spend most of their time at home washing, cleaning, cooking and taking care of their kids? Do you often hear mothers refer to looking after their own kids as ‘babysitting’?”

“Are you sick of hearing men go on about how hard it is to balance work and parenthood?”

These are some of the opening questions that Emily Maguire uses to get readers thinking about the gender roles still entrenched in society today in Your Skirt’s Too Short — Sex, Power, Choice.

This is a fantastic book. If ever you needed a reminder of why we need to continue the struggle of generations of women before us in pushing for equality between the sexes, this is it.

This book is an updated version of her 2008 book Princesses and Pornstars. It includes some changes to vocabulary and pop culture references to make it more accessible to teenagers.

I didn’t actually realise it was aimed at teenagers until after I had read it and can say it is certainly good reading for those who are older too.

I found it to be frank, comprehensive and unforgiving in tackling head-on some of the big issues to do with sex, power and women’s choices.

It is one in a string of excellent feminist books recently released that take up similar issues, but this one is grounded in an Australian context.

Maguire’s writing style is personal, punchy and easy to read. She skillfully combines a great mix of reflections about her own personal experiences and struggles with interviews with everyday women. It includes much research — from mass media, pop culture and recent academic studies.

Maguire says her feminism is “based on the belief that, while there are differences between men and women, none of them justifies one sex having more social, economic or political power than the other”.

She wants to “destroy all sex and gender-based power differences in our society”.

I agree with her belief that “apart from the obvious physical stuff, most of the differences between men and women are determined by cultural training”.

She convincingly argues that, “while the professional and legal position of women has improved enormously in the last half-century, socially and domestically we’ve barely progressed at all”.

Maguire denounces the “maddening habit of labelling every single gender-role-conforming thing a woman does as ‘empowering’”.

Instead, she argues that the narrow way that women are perceived creates a social, economic and political environment in which women are punished for not conforming.

Maguire explores the contradictory messages that women are given about sex. She investigates the use of the term “slut” and argues against old social double-standards that stigmatise promiscuous women and view women’s sexuality as a limited resource.

“Imagine if we were all taught that sex is supposed to be pleasurable … [and] that girls are as interested in sex as boys are.”

Why are shows like “Australian Princess” and other manifestations of the princess theme so popular? Maguire says that while the “princess thing” is not new, “it is part of a larger popular culture trend towards old-fashioned gender role pigeon-holing disguised as sassy female empowerment”.

“It seems the more that women infiltrate the professional and political realms and the better that girls perform in school and university, the more retrograde that pop culture representations of women become.”

She also examines pop music and concludes that “most of the songs by women in the Top 40 charts send a deeply conservative, traditionalist message about women and relationships”. She compared this with the type of songs released by artists such as Alanis Morissette and Salt ‘n’ Pepa during the 1990s.

Maguire mentions two different studies that show a quarter of employers were more likely to hire a woman who wore make-up than one who didn’t. Many women have to adhere to dress codes at work that include high heels, make-up and skirts.

Add to that social expectations and women end up doing “expensive, time-consuming, painful things” rather than risk facing exclusion or disadvantage.

Maguire criticises both “raunch culture” and “the modesty movement”.

She says we need to “broaden the possibilities” and “work on creating a culture in which women are not judged by the length of their skirt or the size of their breasts, in which they are safe from sexual harassment and violence, regardless of what they have chosen to wear, and in which their sexual expression is understood separately from the desires of men”.

We are given alarming statistics on the rise of sexually transmitted infections and the acceptance among many teenage boys that sex can involve elements of coercion and force.

Maguire criticises the sexist content of many magazines and highlights the need for much better sex education in schools. She says such education should be “free of gender bias and biological determinism, that has an emphasis on respect and consent and that teaches that sexual urges are natural and healthy”.

Maguire believes that single women have it better than in the past, but there is still enormous pressure on them to marry — especially after the age of 35.

In the past, women have done most of the unpaid work of caring for children, the sick and the elderly — equivalent to about one million full-time jobs in Australia.

“Now that legal and economic barriers to educational and work opportunities have been mostly broken down,” Maguire says, “marriage is still the best way society has of encouraging women to conform to these traditional roles”.

Maguire admits that she herself is “conflicted” about what it means to be married. She calls for equal marriage rights regardless of gender or sexual orientation and expects marriage will continue to change as society changes.

She also believes that marriage “can be anything married people make it”.

There is an excellent chapter in the book about working and parenting options. Maguire points to the preponderance of stories in the media about women who are “choosing to devote their lives to motherhood rather than juggling parenting and work”.

She explores the reasons why it is usually the female partner who takes on the primary caring role and calls, among other things, for better paid parental leave schemes.

She cleverly dissects the factors at play behind the gender pay gap, which, in 2008 in Australia, meant that women’s full-time earnings “were, on average, only 83% of male full-time earnings”.

Maguire says the rising popularity of “vaginal rejuvenation” surgery is a product of unrealistic expectations fostered by the porn industry and magazine classification guidelines.

There is also some evidence that breast enlargement surgery in Australia has doubled in the period between 1992 and 2004.

She talks from personal experience about the impact the unattainable beauty ideal can have on women’s health and self-esteem.

The chapter on porn is excellent. Maguire doesn’t shy away from the issue’s complexities and acknowledges that many women “have found sexual joy through pornography”. But she finds mainstream pornography “overwhelmingly misogynous and degrading to women” and explores the harm it causes to the female performers.

Industry experts admit porn is getting more and more extreme. Maguire points out that the internet has “revolutionised pornography” by removing the need to interact with someone to purchase it — “now porn is unprecedentedly private and unrestricted”.

Maguire argues that “there is nothing inherently degrading about people having sex on film”, but rails against the type of porn that is being viewed, including by many young people who use it to learn about sex.

She calls for people to overcome any embarrassment about critiquing porn and to seek out ethical porn options.

Maguire examines the backlash against feminist ideas and busts some myths, like the one that feminism has led to boys doing worse at school. She skilfully tackles issues like abortion and points to the pitfalls for both men and women of reinforcing gender stereotypes.

As Maguire rightly points out, we are today “beneficiaries of over a century of feminist thought and activism” and we need to continually apply these ideas and insights to contemporary issues.

There is nothing like a good feminist book like this to leave you with a strange mix of emotions — uplifted because of how refreshing it is to read a strong feminist critique of what’s going on around you, and angry, because there is still the need for such critiques.

Maguire calls on both women and men to “act together to tackle sexism if we truly want to be free as individuals”. Hers is a rallying call worth responding to.

Comments

As one who treats many left-leaning articles with a healthy skepticism, I find it interesting that the feminism expressed by Maguire is not, in actuality, particularly revolutionary in nature, but, rather, seeks to create and promote understanding between women and men now and in the future.

However, it is important to note that:
Whilst inequality certainly is a difference, not all differences are inequalities.

I shall leave this for viewers to interpret

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