When I was in year nine, I questioned my sports teacher on the gendered dress code of my school. Female students were prohibited from having visible bra straps, shorts that revealed ‘too much’, or low-cut tops. My teacher became visibly distressed as I vocalised my feminist concerns with the rules and, after attempting to argue, he silenced me by simply saying ‘when you are older you will understand’.
Now, a 19-year-old entering my second year of university, I am still waiting to understand. Was my teacher referring to the supposed uncontrollable nature of male sexuality? Or was he disturbingly inferring that female high school students are sexualised by their male teachers?
Throughout my life I have often been lectured and discursively demeaned by older men. It seems as though not much has changed since I was in high school. Without a strong feminist upbringing, I may well have concluded that I am the last person capable of knowing what choices to make about my body and my life. In observing this recurring pattern I have been led to wonder why gender roles allow for the unwanted advice and unsolicited lectures provided to me by older men. It’s as if there is an unwritten, sacred rule that outlines their inherent superiority and wisdom, which excuses them from some pretty basic social rules. To some, my accusations may seem unfair. Too often, though, I am subjected to patronising, unsolicited advice and instruction from men before I have the chance to open my mouth.
A small while ago I was sitting outside a bar with a bunch of people. We were engaging in the usual kind of bar chitchat. A middle-aged man amongst us began to speak about how amazing it is to have children really young. In this group, I was the only woman present, the majority were young males. This older man asked me my age, I said ’19,’ scared of where this line of questioning would lead, and then sure enough he told me that if I did become pregnant, I definitely should ‘keep the child’. According to him, I should be considering parenthood at my age, now is apparently the time to have a baby. Half petrified I considered silence as a fair response. But instead I couldn’t help striking: I challenged his right to lecture me about my reproductive choices. But he only laughed; apparently it was all a bit of fun.
A little while ago I joined a rally. As a political activist I am part of the union movement, passionate about the fight for the rights of the marginalised. An older man and fellow activist standing nearby introduced himself and started to tell me what strategy I should be using as a politically involved young woman. He, standing closer than I would have thought appropriate, informed me of how I should be acting and when I should be helping out. Unable to even get a word in I was forced to stand there, silently, as I received this unsought instruction from someone I had only met seconds earlier. As I stood, staring at his moving lips, I hardly heard a word he said, all I could think was ‘This man is treating me like a very young child who can’t make a decision and knows nothing’.
In attempting to understand this behaviour I believe it must be seen as inextricably linked to structural perceptions of gender. Putting aside the unsubstantiated assumption that gender is a binary made up of two categories, this uninvited coaching provided to me suggests that older male subjectivity is still perceived as more intelligent than any other. There is a common understanding that the discourse they deliver is worth more than that of any young woman, even in relation to personal issues of body and life. And that young women will be submissive and even grateful in receiving any advice given to them by a person who is older and male. This not only causes harm to the young woman receiving the instruction but also further perpetuates myths of male subjectivity. Going back to the inference made by my high school sports teacher, it’s as if society assumes that men have these uncontrollable, masculine urges; excusing them for indecent sexual behaviour or indeed indecent social behaviour. This is a deeply offensive fiction, proved wrong by many men I have met throughout my life.
For any movement, organisation or campaign to fight in a unified manner, there must be an abolition of the gender norms that result in demeaning discourse or silenced voices. Perceptions of gender that make young women question their sense of self, feel belittled or patronised, are destructive to social progress, and hinder the development of ideas that are pivotal to the creation of change.
Reflecting on my own experiences of sex-based relegation has further reinforced the old yet vital slogan: the personal is political. Only by highlighting what is unacceptable to us, what is patronising and what is inappropriate (even if this is to one lone person who thinks it is okay to lecture us on personal life choices) can we build the political strength of a feminist movement that fights for equality, liberation and justice.
Image: Kevin Curtis
Gabriela Falzon is a poet, activist and performer. She is currently a student of sociology and gender studies at ANU.