Just call me an ugly militant feminist

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Two scary faces, both of them mine — for no one to mess with.

How (not) to be cool – pt. 2

Nowadays, it seems that narcissism and an obsession with looks and perfection have become perfectly acceptable, even cool, for women. Social media is overflowing with flattering (often to the point of the person being unrecognizable) selfies as well as posts providing largely unrealistically positive information about the individual’s life (yes, the latter applies to men as well as women).

More than once in the past year, I’ve had to stop and think before I could remember how I knew some of my so-called ‘friends’ on Facebook (possibly an indication for me to remove them from said list). Once or twice, I have been so fascinated by how different a girl looked in photos from the way I remembered her in real life that I had to check other pictures to reassure myself it was actually the same person. And I felt saddened, not as much by how fake and unoriginal she looked, but how proud this seemed to make her. How important it was to her to make an impression on the world. To make herself seen. Apparently, this is what Instagram and Facebook have done to us: it has become perfectly normal to see special occasions as an opportunity to show off our lives to the world rather than as a chance to enjoy the present and celebrate precious times with our family and/or friends (the ones we are with right now). Sometimes this happens subconsciously – of course, we all like to present the ideal versions of ourselves and our lives, both to ourselves and to others. For one of those girls, this means she wears a tight new dress in every photo, with gorgeous hair that must have taken her hours to style, and a ton of make-up that makes her look like just another Kim Kardashian imitation. Perhaps she looks like someone many girls strive to be (though I hope not). But she sure as hell doesn’t look like someone we’d have a great conversation with or who could help inspire us to become better people.

I wonder why we try so hard to present our lives as perfect. Is it because many of us still admire those who (seem to) love themselves the most, and whose lives appear to be easier than our own? However, I’m sure we all agree that it’s harder to connect with people who seem perfect than it is to connect with those who are vulnerable, imperfect, sincere. Maybe we merely wish we could be as oblivious as they seem to be? Maybe we feel our lives would be easier if we lied to ourselves and ignored our inherent, eternal imperfection? Might it not perhaps be more enriching to be able to admit our weaknesses and be willing to change? By weaknesses, I do not mean visual ‘flaws’ as they are defined by society. I mean cognitive and behavioural flaws – including our reluctance to question our obsession with looks and the way others perceive us.

Perhaps we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to a kind of world we don’t want, not merely by focusing too much on ourselves and our image instead of helping others, but also by way of what our posts evoke or ‘confirm’ in others’ heads. For instance, do women who post semi-nude pictures of themselves on Instagram in order to get more likes not feel that they might further encourage the frighteningly fast-growing trend towards general objectification and lack of sexual respect we get from men? Don’t get me wrong: both men and women have a tendency to objectify each other in a sexual or aesthetic context, and in a mutually cohesive environment this would not present an issue. But we shouldn’t allow it to become a trend that harms us physically or spiritually, a trend that has already begun to affect our entire lives, including the way we strive to be perceived by every single stranger on the internet.

I’m not just blaming the Kim Kardashians, though. I do feel disappointed by all those who are making it even harder for other women to be taken seriously as human beings, but more than them, I’m blaming our culture. I’m blaming movies and music videos and ads for still failing to present women who are interesting to watch for more than their clone-looks, and I’m blaming them for failing to reflect the richness and complexity of womanhood. Sure, there is a growing number of pleasant exceptions, especially in TV series (HBO and Netflix offering a great variety of less stereotypical female characters) and independent cinema, and now we even have a blockbuster that many regard as a feminist film (Wonder Woman), and I will look at some of those examples in my next post. But the highest-grossing films are still those which portray women in a more simplistic way, without any depth or individuality (either as the tough and sexy action hero, the cruel but sexy antagonist, the neurotic and superficial career woman, the naive beauty, the manipulative co-worker / boss, the jovial and slightly obnoxious chubby woman, or the selfless and otherwise personality-free mother).

An example: a few weeks ago, I rewatched a 2011 comedy with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston called Just Go With It because some friends love the movie and wanted to see it again. I thought maybe I’d think of it differently now than when it first came out, and I did, though not in the way I expected. The first time I saw it, I thought it was mediocre and not particularly funny. When I saw it again, I thought it was not just average but actually pretty terrible. The number of scenes reducing women to the appeal of their bodies and their ability to please a man sexually by far outnumber any (potentially) redeeming scenes. In order for Adam Sandler’s character Danny to fall in love with Jennifer Aniston’s character Katherine and lose interest in his much younger girlfriend Palmer (whose only appeal seems to lie in her looks), Katherine first has to show off her curves in a bikini, proving that her body is just as fit, youthful, flawless, and thus sexually desirable as Palmer’s. In yet another scene designed to satisfy the ‘male gaze’, Katherine joins in on a hula-dancer competition with her frenemy, played by Nicole Kidman. That night, Danny finally realizes he has feelings for Katherine.

A movie like Just Go With It is not instantly recognizable as misogynistic unless you are already taking everything you see and hear with a grain of salt instead of mindlessly consuming and accepting whatever you are fed like most of us do. Because the movie merely repeats an old pattern which is subconsciously influencing male and female minds.

The worst thing about misogyny in popular culture is the fact that as soon as you point out examples of it, you are very often dismissed as a fun-spoiling bitch. While my friends would never call me that, I’m sure it’s exactly what they thought of me after I tried to make my point. No one likes to see one of their favourite comedies torn to pieces.

As a more complex and interesting example, I would like to mention the first episode of the Netflix show Easy, which still haunts me. Right after I saw this episode, I googled articles about it and was alarmed by the fact that the Internet was not actually filled with articles about how this episode reflects, and appears to comment on, the deeply misogynistic elements of our society. It also alarmed me that one of the people I spoke to about it did not consider the domestic rape scene disturbing in the slightest, and I think many viewers nowadays wouldn’t, because, thanks to internet porn, they are so used to sex being portrayed as something that has to be pleasant for the man, but doesn’t need to be so for the woman. In the final ten minutes of the episode, the otherwise so loving and caring husband completely disregards his wife’s desires and visibly does not care in the slightest that she is in pain while he is fucking her. Doesn’t anyone see this as deeply upsetting in its contradiction? Has it become so normal that no one feels the need to comment on it?

Is it really cool for a man to use and exploit a woman without paying any attention to whether she is into it or not? And is it cool for a woman to sacrifice her own desire in attempts to please a man who doesn’t respect her? Are women still conditioned to feel they don’t own the right to confidently voice their own desires?

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her book Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, “we teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. […] Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. […] This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”

Isn’t it cooler to accept and respect yourself at the risk of not being liked, than to bend over backwards for other people’s approval only to (possibly) be liked more, but respected less – both by others and yourself? Being too nice to people (especially to those who don’t deserve your attention) is draining and – I can tell you from experience – not worth the trouble. I still cringe at how much I wanted to be liked at high school. How important it was to me back then: pleasing people I didn’t even like, didn’t find interesting or kind or funny in the slightest. As a consequence of my behaviour, I lost all awareness of my own needs and identity, my trust and my self-worth, all of which took me a long time to rebuild.

Most women are still reluctant to call themselves feminists, and I doubt this is solely because they have yet to realize that being a feminist doesn’t involve hating and destroying all men (though I admit that an awareness of injustice does carry the risk of inspiring anger and frustration – it certainly does in me from time to time). I think our reluctance stems from the fact that feminists have long been considered uncool. Men – as well as women – still tend to think of feminists as dull, butch, unattractive, and very angry people who make a fuss out of nothing. Sure, there is the occasional self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ celebrity who won’t alienate fans when using the term because they still largely adhere to men’s general expectations of what a woman should be (vain, beautiful, pleasant, unrebellious, and thus not a threat to the status quo).

Those suspicious of ‘feminism’ like to ignore the fact that what this concept actually means is the knowledge that women deserve to be respected and taken seriously as human beings, the awareness that this fact is not actually reflected in our culture (no, not even in our ‘progressive’ western world), and the resulting attempt to achieve social justice and equality. And many women are too deeply entrenched in their roles to recognize how convenient the upholding of double standards and extreme paradoxes is for men: women must not show signs of aging, but men may, which means men do not need to worry about their own looks, but they have the power to make women feel deeply insecure about their own; women have to be thin and beautiful, otherwise they are ridiculed or ignored; however, if they are beautiful, they are solely appreciated for their beauty and not actually taken seriously as human beings – it’s a vicious cycle that keeps women weak and ‘in their place’.

To me,
an empowered woman is the coolest thing ever. Women who aren’t afraid to ask for what they want, women who accept themselves with their supposed physical flaws and do not try to change them, women who take it for granted that they deserve just as much respect as men, even when their experiences might have taught them otherwise. Women who have the wisdom and self-respect not to worry about aging, and who have the courage to say no whenever a man tries to convince them to do something they don’t feel comfortable doing. Because there are way too many women out there who allow the increasingly misogynistic aspects of our culture to define the way we should act and respond to the behaviour of men. We let shitty movies and magazines and Internet porn establish the ground rules. Because we are continuously given the impression that we are going to be considered uncool, fun-spoiling bitches if we don’t.

So it’s time to ask ourselves what’s more important: awareness, courage, self-acceptance, freedom, and originality – or standardized good looks and likeability?

 

Uncool for School


What does “coolness” (as a concept to describe a person) mean to you? As a single word, “cool” makes me think of someone composed, comfortable with themselves, easygoing, and also, more generally, great or awesome. It could, of course, sometimes be used in a derogatory way, denoting indifference or arrogance, but for the most part, the trait has positive connotations. So what type of behaviour makes someone truly cool?

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How (not) to be cool – pt. 1

Up until about the age of 16, when I switched schools and made some actual friends, I was among the unfortunate few unpopular kids at school. I was the one who got voted last for a team in gym class (meaning I was the only one not being chosen at all, basically unwittingly forcing someone to pick me so we’d have even numbers), and this wasn’t for any physical reasons. It was simply that no one liked me, perhaps because I was shy and quiet and had not yet become my own person. Well, OK, I admit I’ve also never been the sportiest.

I was a lonely kid who often found herself standing in the schoolyard by herself, eating my avocado and getting asked what the fuck I was eating (I was ahead of my time – or rather, my mum was; she was buying the avocados). One time this smug couple laughed at me, asking what those pinkish-white blotches in my face were – turns out the concealer I had used on my spots was several shades too light. Had I been able to see myself in the daylight and given less of a shit about my spots, I would have been pretty amused myself. The mean couple would probably be quite surprised (and delighted) to hear that the same thing still happens to me from time to time (well, it can vary in that sometimes the concealer/make-up I choose is too dark, not too light), which makes one wonder: 1. why the hell I still get spots in my thirties, and 2. how after so many years of covering up spots, I still don’t manage to do a fantastic job of it.

Anyway, back to my teenage years: the most uncool thing about me was the fact that I tried desperately to make friends with people I didn’t even like – well, there were a couple of people I liked, and they were nice to me, but aside from them, there weren’t really any decent human beings in my classroom (though I accept that at that age most of us are either jerks or morons, or both). Unfortunately, being a sweet, accommodating person wasn’t something that won you a popularity contest. Confidence and boldness, that’s what ‘coolness’ was all about. I’m still not 100% sure why I tried so hard to get everyone to like me. A part of it was definitely the fact that I was too afraid to hang out by myself during lunch breaks and risk getting stares of pity, another was that I always admired the popular kids, no matter how brainless or cruel they actually were. I admired them for their popularity, and for the fact that everything seemed to go smoothly for them at school. I also admired them for their extreme confidence and (seeming) oblivion regarding their own flaws. I guess to me this seemed like something amazing because I have always been acutely aware of my own flaws (of which, don’t get me wrong, I still have many to count, despite all my dwelling and self-criticism).

So here is the worst part: I was well aware that the right thing for me to do would be to be sincere, do my own thing, and stop being a pushover. After all, I was continuously reminded of the dangers and inherent immorality of cowardly behaviour in German history classes and discussions at home, where the German guilt complex was still strong, and a ‘Mitläufer’ (blind follower) was the most revolting and shameful thing you could be. So I knew that those who followed the mass and neglected to defend themselves and others when treated with disrespect, those too anxious to please the popular kids, could be described as ‘Mitläufer’ – and that I was one of them. But I simply wasn’t strong or autonomous enough to withstand the immense pressure I felt to be accepted and included. It wasn’t until I switched schools at the age of 16 that I swore myself never to chase people again just because they were popular, and not to hang out with anyone whose company wasn’t actually enjoyable, and I stayed (largely) true to my promise, and in turn learned to respect myself a little more.

I guess most of us know the urge to be accepted, to be appreciated, to be seen. Our Facebook and Instagram accounts offer enough proof of that. But why is that? Just why do we continue to strive so hard to be liked, admired, and respected by others well into adulthood? Why do we keep feeling the need for others’ approval before we allow ourselves to be OK with ourselves? After all, how could we possibly find external evidence for something that no one but ourselves can ever truly know and understand?

So should we really feel cooler and prouder of ourselves when we post a new picture or status update and manage to get a certain number of likes, or do we not instead become way too dependent on acknowledgement and approval from the outside world? I still remember all too well what it felt like to be ignored and disliked at school, and sometimes Facebook overuse stirs those feelings back up in me. Even though I’m aware that most of my closest friends don’t make much use of it (one of my best friends doesn’t even have a Facebook account, and another only set one up recently), the lack of responses I used to get for posts on a page I have since deleted used to leave me a little heartbroken. Again, I was being ignored and excluded; again, I felt stupid and insignificant; again, I felt like there must be something inherently, acutely wrong with me, though I wasn’t sure what. So now whenever I’m in a vulnerable place, in order not to drown in those kinds of feelings, I just know to stay away from social media.

There are advantages to knowing what it’s like to grow up lonely and uncool. No, I’ll never know what it’s like to be Miss Popular when I’m in a class/group/social media situation, but I’m also not trying to be loved by everyone anymore. I have made several very close friends in each of the five countries I’ve lived in, friends I can count on and who love me the way I am (even though they know me very well), and that means more to me than most things in this world. I’ve learned to appreciate friendships a lot, arguably more than anyone who grew up popular ever could. I also seem to form deeper connections faster because I hate anonymous small talk and am not afraid of opening up about vulnerabilities and weaknesses way before the other person would normally begin to feel comfortable to do so. Real, honest friendships: you can’t get them on Facebook. In real life you definitely can, if you manage to drop those ridiculous, flawless facades, and you’re willing to open up, not only about the stuff that makes you look awesome and cool, but also the stuff that makes you look incredibly sad and stupid and ugly and vulnerable. Because we all have more than enough of that stuff.

Nowadays, when I watch movies and TV shows with geeky, unpopular characters, it’s often those characters I see as the coolest (I’m thinking of two of my favourite TV series, Stranger Things and Freaks & Geeks). I no longer believe it’s popularity that makes you cool – it’s sincerity and the courage to accept and stay true to yourself even when you feel that everyone is against you. Which is not a quality a lot of people have, and I’m certainly not saying I have perfected that skill. The people I admire the most are the ones who don’t follow the path laid out by the people around them, but who question everything society tells them to be, who don’t stop trying to change into a better person, and who don’t chase others in an effort to avoid solitude or receive validation. Because they have stopped caring about what others may or may not think of them.

Whether it means being relaxed, at ease with yourself, generally awesome, or detached – in no sense of the word was I ever cool at school. But I guess I’ve grown a little cooler over the past decades, at least in some ways; because I have begun to treat myself with the respect that I, like everyone else, deserve.