This week it was my Mum’s birthday. I like my Mum quite a bit – of all the women who gave birth to me, she’s certainly my favourite – and so when my Dad said we were going for dinner to celebrate the birth of his excellent wife, I offered to make a birthday cake. I had big plans for this cake. I decided on a spiced apple sponge – nice and autumnal for a September birthday. I planned on making my own caramel (yes, I know, I’m a very good daughter). It would be understatedly spectacular (a lot like the woman herself) and yet the best baked plans of mice and men often go awry.
The sponge got stuck to the tin when I got it out of the oven. I was severely limited by various family members’ dietary requirements (including my own). The caramel turned into some kind gelatinous mess that did not resemble caramel in the slightest. The piping went all drippy. The lid of the cake tin stuck to the icing so I had to redo the whole thing. Needless to say, the finished result was a bit of a mess – but I had finished it. It was hard labour, but the cake was born and I proudly set it down on the dinner table – trying not to dwell too hard on the fact that I had forgotten the candles.
And this is when a male relative – who shall remain nameless but the fact he is male is relevant to the story – decided to bang on the cake tin and pretend it was a drum. My poor cake, the one that had taken all my time and energy and willpower to finish without crying in a heap on the kitchen floor – was under threat of destruction. And so I mustered up a very light and joke-y tone and said, “You know, I like you a lot, but if you ruin that cake I’ve worked so hard on I may need to punch you in the face.” To which he replied:
“Ooo, is it a certain time of the month?”
Now, I’m usually quite quick with a comeback, but I’ll admit that one took me a second (to those who are interested, it was “No, you are just that irritating” which abruptly ended the conversation). But I was a bit taken aback by it. Maybe I spend a bit too much time with left-wing millennials, but do people still think it’s OK to make comments like that? Of course, a woman has made a statement I do not understand or agree with, perhaps she’s even annoyed with me, so she must be on her period and I can undermine her point entirely by glibly referring to her reproductive cycle – is that still a thing?
I told this story to my friends at work the following day, followed up with a “How can men think it’s OK to do that?” (for which I was grateful to receive a good amount of wide-eyed rage – solidarity, Sisters). However, my friend Beth, who is very wise and thoughtful, pointed out, “Isn’t that just everyday sexism though? I mean, it sucks, but we all do it.” And yes, yes we do. As much as I would like to make this a “Urgh, men” thing, we’re all guilty of making off-hand comments that are unfair on either sex (such as going “Urgh, men”…)
It’s preferring to be friends with guys because “girls are so catty and passive-aggressive.” It’s bemoaning how men are so useless round the house. It’s in making small talk and asking a male how work is going, and asking a female how the kids are, because even in this day and age we assume that the man is the breadwinner (and doesn’t want to talk about his kids) and the woman doesn’t have a job or care about it because her primary role is that of a caregiver. Every day, in little, almost innocent ways, we make assumptions. And often we make assumptions based on previous experiences and evidence – gender stereotypes don’t occur in a vacuum – but that doesn’t mean they’re true, and the assumption-and-experience relationship is much more chicken-and-egg that we realise.
I’ve had some very catty and passive-aggressive female friendships, which means I consider myself more “one of the guys”. Yet, by and large, a lot of my friendships with women are honest and kind and wonderful. Still, in my mind I think it’s harder to be friends with all girls, based on experiences with one or two. And what about those one or two? Hasn’t the assumption that this is how women should behave led to these women behaving this way, and then passing that behaviour on to other women through minor but damaging everyday comments? Because if that’s how women behave, that’s how I should go about things, right?
And surely the pervading wisdom that “men are useless around the house” has given men an excuse to be useless around the house. I say that from experience of having the opposite dynamic where I am the useless one in the team, because it’s “known” in our house that James is the one that does things so I can get away with not doing things. But if we didn’t tell men they were useless or lazy, maybe they wouldn’t be lazy. This “men are useless” excuse needs to stop (and I say that not so everyone can have my dynamic instead – it all needs to stop, loathe though I am to operate a hoover).
So let’s go back to my unnamed male relative, who did not make an original joke. The “ooo, time of the month?” thing has been around for donkeys’ years – he was just repeating a “funny” comeback he’s heard a thousand times before; the first thing he thought of in a game of banter. And it’s probably based on a bit of truth. Sometimes, when a woman is on her period, she gets cranky or even a bit snappy. Considering the hormones and the pain and whatnot that a lot of women experience on a monthly basis, that’s a fairly natural reaction.
But this has led to a joke and an assumption that whenever a woman is annoyed or upset, she must be on her period, or the fact she’s on her period – whether it’s a particularly bothersome one or not – makes whatever she’s saying irrelevant, or that all women react this way to menstruation and are slaves to their feelings. And this casual joke, this offhand comment that a lot of people have made over the years, means women in general are seen as emotional, illogical and not to be listened to or taken seriously. Yes, it’s only a joke, but its implications are far wider than we realise.
I know I’m not going to fix everyday sexism overnight. I know I probably won’t turn my unnamed male relative into a feminist anytime soon, but I do know he’s not the problem – we all are. It’s hard to break a thought pattern that has been drummed into you your whole life. All I’m saying is perhaps we should try something that any good parent teaches their kids: think before you speak. Your thoughts and words have power, so try and catch them and look at them for what they are. The next time you make an assumption – and this applies to far wider issues than sexism and gender – ask yourself where that came from, and ask yourself if it’s true. No one ever says the perfect, completely PC thing – I’m certainly still learning not to label people – but all we can do is try to harness the power of our words for good and maybe, just maybe, changing our thoughts and words might just change the world.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti