Back to the fifties?

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An article in the Guardian got me thinking: is the title “Ms” really unkown to women under 30? A straw poll of under 30 women in my office slightly reassured me as they all use the title, but then it is a very political office.

The phenomenon however is wider than just this title. Only that morning I was listening to a CWU spokesperson talking about the postal strike and repeatedly referring to “postmen and postwomen” – when did the gender neutal term “postal worker” cease being used? And over the past few years, the “chair” versus “chairman” war seems to have been decisively won by the latter (on that, I really do get tired of people making the trite argument that “I am not a piece of furniture” – you’re not a man either Ms Widdecombe, or hadn’t you noticed?).

And then there is Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I went to see this film on Wednesday and to my great unsurprise it was utter tosh. It was surprisingly old fashioned tosh though. In particular, unless I had simply not noticed in the first film, but the Sue Richards/Invisible Girl/Jessica Alba character appeared to have reverted to a 50s stereotype. The main subplot revolves around this character’s determination to make a husband out of “Mr Fantastic”, to settle down and to have kids (casting Jessica Alba as a blonde wallflower has got be the worst casting in history). Some weird alien pops up on her wedding day, threatening not only the city but the whole world, and all she cares about is that her wedding is spoilt. Over the course of the film, she “learns her lesson” and decides to let the boys have their fun after all. Throughout, she plays the doting lover/sister/friend role inspiring the menfolk to go and do great things while she merely gets killed (although she does get better). Oh, and she has an obligatory nudie scene. The only other female character has a similarly inconceivable transformation, from uptight army captain to screaming brainless girlfriend desperate to get her hands on a wedding bouquet. Most excrutiating of all, the male characters keep referring to “eggzodig daansaas” (Ioan Gruffudd fake New York pronunciation) when they mean “strippers,” but then I suppose this is a PG-13.

Okay, maybe comic book movies have never been the epitome of feminism, but this is a far cry from Michele Pfeifer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns. The point is, we seem to be drifting backwards. And maybe I’m missing something but women under a certain age don’t seem particularly concerned about this. In part, I think this is a backlash against a feminism that seemed too uncompromising and content to cast women as victims rather than encourage them to take control of their own lives. I don’t believe that is an accurate caricature, but it is certainly one which a lot of young women I’ve known over the past decade in politics have felt strongly about. Ten years ago, Natasha Walter was writing the New Feminism and the “laddette” culture was at its height. The laddettes are wearing glossier lipstick now and drinking Bacardi Breezers instead of lager, but the trend appears to have continued. The fact that we’re even having debates about abortion laws in Parliament suggests there has been a sea change. Yet in that time, we have seen more women than ever active in politics and business. So what exactly is going on?

It would be worth exchanging symbolic things like the words “chair” and “Ms” if what we get in return is true equality, but I’m not sure that is what is happening. It appears to be dividing on class lines. At a working class, uneducated level, things seem to be moving backwards and the rise of gang culture is hardly striking a blow for women’s lib. Meanwhile middle-class girls are outcompeting their male counterparts in school and going on to bigger and better things. There does seem to be a link with the decline of social mobility, but it does seem that the time is long overdue for a noughties equivalent of the Female Eunuch.

2 thoughts on “Back to the fifties?

  1. You’re put your finger on something here, James. I’ve had several converstaions along those lines recently. Perhaps a related trend is the rise in casual homphobia among the age cohorts younger than us, expressed not just as belittling patronising homophobic stereotypes, but actual contempt (‘that’s so gay’ etc.). Is it just not cool to be overtly political?

  2. I hate the term “Ms”, not because I am an anti-feminist or because I believe in any 1950s gender stereotype, but because I hate the sound of it. Very ugly. “Muzz”. Arrgh. And it also signifies that whoever I am dealing with has not taken enough interest in me to ascertain my preferred title. Lazy. Of course, I accept the gender-political points, and I would happily welcome a more directly comparative version of “mister”, but it just ain’t happening. I also wonder whether you are missing a move among some career women to maintain their maiden names in their professional life even after marriage. I certainly know a number of women who do just that.

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