All about privilege and not much to do with weddings

I have been working hard for the past couple of days. Today I was going to write a post about my engagement ring, but I decided to write about privilege instead, because that is just the kind of mood I am in.

There was a minor media storm lately regarding Caitlin Moran’s comment on Twitter that she ‘literally couldn’t give a shit’ about the fact that the sitcom ‘Girls’ features an all-white cast. Her comments triggered some debate over whether a show which has managed to become successful while focusing entirely on the concerns of the ‘Girls’, providing a rare portrayal of ‘real’ women on TV, should also feature women from ethnic minorities, and whether feminists as a group should ‘give a shit’ about whether it does or not.

Moran has been accused of demonstrating a sense of entitlement in not engaging with this debate. She answered her critics by stating that the question ‘why are the women in ‘Girls’ all white?’ is as relevant as the question ‘why were all the members of Abba white?’.

Abba is a pop group that formed in Sweden in the 1970s, where the population was predominantly white. ‘Girls’ is a sitcom written about life in New York in 2012, where the population is predominantly…oh, hang on…

The writer of ‘Girls’ focuses upon what she knows. She doesn’t extend her writing beyond her own concerns, and neither does Caitlin Moran. They don’t think about their own white privilege, because they don’t have to.

I started to think about this in relation to male privilege. This is something that all feminists can understand; it’s probably what made them become feminists in the first place. For me, it all clicked into place when I had a child. It was then that I felt the brakes applied to every aspect of my life. It was like the change from cycling along smooth flat ground in 3rd gear, to struggling up a hill in 1st. Motherhood engenders a total transformation, a complete rethink of priorities and lifestyle – yet for a father, this transformation is entirely optional.

As a single mother, I would watch news items where children went missing or were abused. The reports would focus on the mother and what she had done wrong: she took her eyes off her child for too long, she went off and had fun and left the child with an unsuitable person, she worked too much – I would marvel at the invisibility of the father; where was he? Sometimes my question would be answered, when the father would pop up on the screen, stating how devastated they were about what had happened to their child while admitting with a complete lack of embarrassment that they hadn’t bothered to see their child for several years. They had, in fact, gone off and had fun and left their child with an unsuitable person – the mother, who they were now stating they always knew was no good. Nobody would suggest that he might have shared some responsibility for the situation. For every single mother who is vilified in the press, is an absent father who is secure in the knowledge that the buck does not stop with him.

Not having to worry about things because they don’t concern you, is what entitlement is all about. Not asking questions about the lives of other people, accepting the status quo as long as it works in your favour, and dismissing other concerns as irrelevant – that’s how to feel comfortable with your own privilege. It strikes me that through reading some of the blogs here, I have gained insights into other lives, sometimes reading about struggles that I have been lucky enough never to have had, sometimes seeing the world in a new and different way – and sometimes realising that I am privileged. I still think mostly about my own experience, of course, but hopefully this all helps to ensure that I would never be the journalist who fails to query the absent father, or the feminist who when asked about race issues, says ‘I literally couldn’t give a shit about it’.

I would like men to question their own entitlements; not to abuse their privilege just because they can. By the same token, I feel that feminists (including myself) have a responsibility to do the same.

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8 thoughts on “All about privilege and not much to do with weddings

  1. There are two sides to everything, and I offer the following thoughts for consideration…

    Society expects mothers to be the ones to look after children; the assumption is that children will stay with their mother if the couple splits up. Even when the couple is still together, society assumes that the mother takes on the primary childcare duties while the father does Man Things like being the primary breadwinner – regardless of whether or not this true in the case of a particular family. So the mother gets most of the blame when the kid goes missing because society assumes she had primary responsibility.

    If the couple has split up and the mother has custody, to be fair, how could the father be responsible for making sure the kid doesn’t go missing? If he wasn’t even in the same county, how can he look after the child? If he wants to get custody because he doesn’t think the mother can care for the child adequately, then he has to prove that she isn’t competent. This can be quite hard to do.

    Regarding fatherhood changing people being optional, I wouldn’t agree. Several of my friends have recently become fathers; all have changed. I actually talked to one of them about it. The words he used were: “Your whole universe changes. Suddenly, it has a new centre.” How can you demand any more than that? One of the others is now a stay-at-home dad; his wife goes out to earn the money. Another guy I know has drastically reduced his participation in a certain leisure activity (causing no little inconvenience to others) because he’s now a father; and this was purely voluntary on his part, and not the result of wifely nagging. On consideration, none of the men I know who have become fathers have a cavalier or careless attitude to fatherhood; nor have I have had the impression that they’ve deliberately chosen to make changes in their lives – instead, that it was the natural result of fatherhood.

    On the other hand, these represent what I would think are the majority. One of my friends is a single mother; the father of her daughter is what is best referred to as a complete oxygen thief and is totally uninterested in his daughter. He’s a representative of the dregs of biological fatherhood.

    Regarding Girls (never watched it myself), there’s two ways of looking at it. If the writer truly has no experience with anyone other than white women, maybe she feels she’d rather stick with what she knows than risk portraying someone from a background that she’s unfamiliar with inaccurately? Which would be worse – an all white cast, or a mostly-white cast with the addition of a badly-written ‘token black girl’ or ‘token Asian girl’? On the other hand, doing a bit of research probably wouldn’t have hurt. And, of course, is it even cultural? When you cast Martin Luther King, he’s pretty much got to be black. But in the newest Sherlock Holmes, according to the posters, Dr Watson appears to be female. Is the race or gender an integral part of the role, or not?

    Here, you get into the ethics of positive discrimination. Is it right to pick someone for a role just because you need to tick the ‘diversity’ box, instead of because they’re qualified?

    As a woman who does mostly male-dominated hobbies, I don’t want to be given special treatment just because I’m female. I want to know that I have earned my karate grade fairly, not been given it because I’m the token girl. I don’t want people to go easy on me when we’re sparring; if I win, I want to win fairly. To give me something I haven’t earned by my own efforts, just because I happen to be female, is just as anti-equalitarian as denying me something I have earned because I am female. It poisons anything I have achieved and makes me doubt my own skills. I am more than my chromosome type.

    I think, before I passed judgement on whether the casting of ‘Girls’ as all-white was right or wrong, I’d want to know how it happened. How were the parts advertised? Who auditioned? How did they decide?

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    Regarding fathers, I didn’t want to give the impression that fathers as a whole are indifferent to the birth of a child, or that I doesn’t change their life, as I don’t think that this is the case. Many fathers are committed parents, and play an equal part in their child’s upbringing, and I’m aware that they can be unwillingly sidelined by divorce.

    However, it is much more socially acceptable for a father to play little part in parenting the child, and to be around just for the fun part. As a mother, it would be seen as fairly unacceptable for me to say that I wanted someone else to do all the nappy changing etc and just give me the child for a couple of hours at the weekend (although I did say this!) My experience of single parenting and that of most of my contemporaries was not that the fathers were begging for more involvement – it was usually the other way around, ie the mothers were begging for some help with the children. This is how I came to the conclusion that hands-on parenting is the default for mothers, but a choice for fathers. Happily, it is a choice that more and more fathers are making as fathering is given more prominence in the media (I was one who loved Nick Clegg’s gesture of scheduling meetings so he could go to pick up his children from school).

    Re Girls, I do understand that the writer was ‘writing about what she knew’. I agree with one commenter who asked why there couldn’t just be a character who just happened not to be white, without their colour being an issue? I understand that it wasn’t something they considered, and they didn’t necessarily have to do so. However, I found Caitlin Moran’s comments fairly objectionable. As someone who writes about injustice and equality in relation to women, it seemed very small-minded to say she ‘literally doesn’t give a shit’ about injustice in relation to anyone else..

  3. Sorry, I didn’t reply properly to your point about the father’s responsibility: I think that a father who has played no role in the upbringing SHOULD be held responsible for that, unless he has been deliberately excluded from that child’s life. Child-rearing is not only the responsibility of the mother. No one person should be expected to look after a child 24/7, given that 2 people were involved in creating the child.

  4. Oh, there I agree with you!

    But then, if you identify as a ‘feminist’, isn’t it part of the definition that it’s women that you care about? There isn’t any implicit, or explicit, requirement to care about anyone else.

    However, I, too find it objectionable that someone who protests against injustice to women is either blind or unconcerned by injustice to other groups. It makes me question their ethics as a whole – how can you be committed to equality if you are not committed to equality for everyone? Unfortunately, this attitude, of defending your own patch to the exclusion, or the detriment, of other people, is all too common.

  5. My understanding of feminism is that it is concerned with a more fair and just society for both men and women. For example, the belief that only women can/should look after children disadvantages women, but also some men who want to look after children. Strict gender roles are bad for everyone, basically.

    When I first experienced injustice – not just understood it as a concept, but experienced it – it made me more likely to be able to identify and be concerned by injustice to other groups. I don’t think Caitlin Moran’s attitude is representative of feminists as a whole. I am very disappointed by it, as I am a fan of her writing.

  6. I think I may have been exposed to the wrong feminists… (My mother-in-law, for instance, who is a strident literary man-bashing feminist.) My experience of feminists has been mostly of the female-superiority-man-deriding sort. Yes, feminists should be concerned with true equality, for both genders, not for female superiority or privilege. And you’d hope that that would spread to non-gender-related issues.

    Yes, talking to people who have been personally disadvantaged due to their gender, race, or personal lifestyle is one thing. Being them is another pair of shoes entirely.

    Regarding Caitlin Moran, maybe this is an opportunity to go back over what she’s written with new eyes. Is she really that unconcerned about equality of any group other than women, or is she another example of a celebrity making an unguarded, unconsidered off-the-cuff remark and then living to regret it? Sometimes our heroes turn out to have feet of clay, but other times we realise they’re still heroes – but they can have a case of foot-in-mouth disease the same as the rest of us.

  7. This is a really thought provoking piece, and since everyone reading this presumably has internet access and time to be reading blogs, we can all sit down and unpack SOMETHING that could be called privileged.

    As for feminism, I am so thankful you respnoded to Theophania as you did. Feminism is about justice and tolerance for EVERYONE. Feminism is not only about women. Many men (including hte one I am married to) are feminists. This image of feminism is, in my opinion, overplayed and overhyped by the patriarchy itself in order to preserve their interests.

  8. Thank you for your comment! I agree, there is definitely a stereotype of feminism which serves to discredit the whole movement, and has little to do with what feminism is. It certainly doesn’t include male feminists. I am glad to hear your husband is a feminist. I am still working on my partner, he definitely wouldn’t call himself a feminist but he is open-minded…

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