Despite an 11 year old who is generally awake later than we are, my husband and I still cling to the remnants of childfree evenings courtesy of Netflix.
Our current boxset is Designated Survivor which, from the vantage point of episode 5, is a pleasingly bonkers tale of the US under threat. It’s perfect post-work viewing: no matter how bad a day you may have had at the office, it doesn’t come close to being catapulted without warning into being the leader of the free world.
Watching it last night through the wrong end of a bottle of wine, two of the three main female characters struck me. Hannah is a high-flying FBI agent with a nose for a plot; Emily a sort of Girl Friday to Keifer Sutherland’s accidental President.
Emily and Hannah are Serious and Dedicated Professionals. We know this because they don’t miss a beat despite personal grief (Hannah) and apparently work round the clock (Emily). But that’s not all. They are both impeccably thin, impeccably groomed and don’t betray by a wrinkle in their designer suits or hint of puffy ankles above vertiginous heels that they might be tired or fraught or somehow otherwise human.
Unrealistic images of women on screen are hardly rare. What was it then that made me pause for thought? Perhaps it was the contrast with the memory of my own look at work that day (trousers shiny, hair sadly not; a bare minimum of makeup thrown at my face in a sort of half-hearted tribute to Grown Upness) that made me realise that their appearance wasn’t just unrealistic, it was nigh-on impossible.
Because I’m 41, and because I’ve been living with this nonsense for a long time, I indulged myself by imagining what everyday life would look like if I tried to live up to this ideal of successful womanhood.
I would get up at 4am, to do an hour’s lonely exercise. A shower then, of course, before spending 30 mins carefully layering on expensive pigments (but not too many) and an hour or more ironing my frizzy hair straight so that I could look appropriately natural to be taken seriously. Clothes? I would ensure that weekends and a large chunk of my salary went on stocking a varied and appropriate wardrobe. Sure, this is all time and money which I currently spend caring for my family, but perhaps I should just sleep (even) less and work (even) more. I’m a woman, aren’t I?
Because I’m 41, and because I have decreasing patience for this nonsense, my hackles were still raised when I caught up with Weekend Woman’s Hour earlier this afternoon. Having a blissful hour to myself (in the kitchen, of course; I know my place) I listened in to a piece from Hull (one of the worst places in the UK to grow up as a girl, apparently) on International Women’s Day.
This is what the three young people interviewed said about their experience of girlhood:
There are more restrictions on girls and what they wear. “I had to think about how I looked at school, whereas before I had just thought about being there to learn”
There’s pressure: to look right, to send naked photos, to be attractive, to be sexy
“Around the age of 10 or 11…I felt pressure to look a certain way. I wasn’t allowed to be myself. I was trying to like make-up and be interested in hair, but I just didn’t really care”
The last speaker, though, had found a way to deal with this.
“Now there is a lot less pressure on how I look. I turn up to school with messy hair, and no-one cares”
So perhaps, despite the apparent evidence, there are ways for girls to cope with the overwhelming pressure to become what women are supposed to be?
But the speaker in question, at around the age of 10 or 11, realised that they were transgender. Messy hair and haphazard clothes are not a problem, apparently, once you’re called James.
I wouldn’t presume to know anything of an individual’s circumstances on the strength of a 30 second snippet on the radio. James is entitled to privacy, and the respect of a stranger who has no idea what his life involves. My concern isn’t James, it’s the tone of the discussion as a whole.
Woman’s Hour – and Jenni Murray in particular – have had their fingers burned talking about trans issues in the recent past. That might be why, following the above, the conversation moved blithely on, with not even the slightest attempt made to draw even the most tentative of possible conclusions from the stories told.
I have a 9 year old daughter. She’s been learning since she was born what society expects of girls, and I don’t flatter myself that what we say at home will counterbalance to any great extent the influences she receives. The best I can hope is that, like every woman I know, she will scramble through a variously miserable adolescence and early adulthood trying to find a way to make her given role fit, until she’s shrugged it into something approaching comfort or has found the confidence to discard it altogether.
Before I was 41, when I was already tired of this nonsense, I hoped that by the time my daughter became a woman she would no longer have to measure herself against the unrealistic, let alone the impossible.
I never dreamed I might have to convince her that it is the expectation, not her struggle to conform to it, which is the problem. That she doesn’t have to find aspiring to the impossible just fine in order to actually be femal after all. Or that Woman’s Hour, apparently, wouldn’t be in my corner for the fight.