t’s day six of the lockdown in Italy, and I wake up to a flurry of indignant messages on one of the many group chats that crowd my notifications these days. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, was a guest on a popular prime-time show, where he spoke lovingly of mothers who are working very hard to keep families together. “And fathers, too” the host, Barbara D’Urso, chipped in. “Yes, of course” Di Maio replied. “Fathers, who are so often freelancers who are currently not working. Some are doctors, too.”
Much of feminism is about seeing the unseen, uncovering the rot underneath the seemingly benign surface.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in acknowledging that women bear the brunt of the emotional labour necessary to keep family units going at a time of crisis. Di Maio, however, stuck to a different, far more familiar script, one that depicts mothers as domestic heroes and fathers as breadwinners. Di Maio is in his thirties, and apparently untouched by concepts such as “benevolent sexism” and “paying lip service to women’s contribution to upholding a system that disproportionately benefits men.”
Before the emergency, there would have been some discussion around this, some degree of public criticism, most likely in the form of a social media brush fire of which Di Maio would be mostly unaware or unwilling to acknowledge. Even the most tenacious among public feminists are worn down, distracted and unwilling to pick fights over things that seemed vital just weeks ago.
While the increasing perniciousness of this kind of discourse is obvious to us, we’re reluctant to call it out. Women’s rights, which are viewed as non-essential, almost whimsical at the best of times, are now nothing but an inconvenience, an issue best brushed aside in favour of more pressing matters. People are dying. The body count is staggering. Who cares about gender, really?
Feminism, by its very nature unsettling, has to take a backseat in the face of mass panic. Tackling issues such as representation, fair treatment, the unequal distribution of domestic work and the gender pay gap requires focus, energy and determination on both sides, because yes, when it comes to women’s rights people are still picking sides, and one is usually a lot less populated than the other.
Feminists! So tiresome, so whiny. Who has time for that? Why can’t they be grateful for what they have?
And so, when the situation requires that we all pull together and do what we can to the best of our abilities, hardly anyone is willing to question gender roles and quibble about the government’s Covid-19 task force being all men, all the time. We just slip into old habits, keep a low profile and, to quote Wilson Phillips, hold on for one more day.
One thing we know about gender bias is that it affects everyone, yet very few people are aware of it or willing to take action to correct it. Anecdotal evidence here, from someone who’s been feminist-ing in public for over a decade: educated liberal men, in particular, tend to be deeply offended by the implication that they may favour their peers above equally (or even more) competent women, as though that kind of automatic preference wasn’t drummed into our subconscious from early childhood.
They want to be persuaded to join the fight and put in the work; they resent the anger and frustration of women who have been pointing out inequality for years, and yet still face doubt, mistrust and plenty of mansplaining.
“I know myself. Why should I question myself? Why should I believe you?” they ask. “What’s in it for me?” is the subtext.
The erasure of women from history and culture isn’t anything new. Even before — how unsettling it is to realize that there is a “before”, and there will be an “after” this pandemic, and it’s too soon to tell what that will look like — men tended to gravitate towards one another.
Festivals, panels, political parties, TV and radio shows, even film showed a paucity of women that was taken for granted. Pointing this out drew eyerolls, at best. Truth is, women are mostly invisible to men, and men call the shots in most fields, particularly the media. In order to be visible to men, women have to mimic conventionally masculine culture — aggressive, tough, competitive and confident. Just “lean in” as though “leaning in” were enough to educate men on the value of individual women, and not yet another way in which we reassure men that women can do it all, as long as they really want it, and the only obstacle in our way is our unwillingness to lead.
This is bullshit.
“Leaning in” may help you break through if you’re an educated upper-middle-class white lady with enough talent and pizzazz to prevail, but it doesn’t make a dent unless you use your newfound position to change the rules to help other, less privileged women step into the spotlight. Surviving within a capitalist society is not feminist per se. Being successful at the expense of others — domestic workers, nannies, unpaid interns, underpaid healthcare staff, servers, teachers — has nothing to do with feminism.
But I digress. Survival is, in itself, a feat; success is a very steep climb on a slimy slope. Women have to claw their way up, all the while maintaining a veneer of poise and conducting themselves with a self-effacing, non-threatening manner. Long story short, we fail, and we fall, and we get blamed for it. The job will go to a mediocre white man.
Female representation is not just about self-actualization and our rights as individuals. It’s not about claiming the spotlight in a world that regards our rights as an afterthought while making us work twice as hard for half the reward. It is, at its core, a social issue. It’s about making good use of women’s talents, intelligence, and vision and allowing the full participation of all individuals in the construction of a society that works for everyone.
The lockdown will end, and there will be rebuilding to do. The longer this worldwide quarantine lasts, the deeper the damage to the economy and the greater the need to re-evaluate the way our system works, question its fundamental iniquity, and work towards ridding ourselves of the idea that individual success is a more worthy goal than effective cooperation and wealth redistribution.
It’s too soon to know what the world will look like when we’re finally allowed out, but I’m willing to bet the prevalence of men in this time of need will cement itself in the collective unconscious. Men will be the heroes and the foes of these times, actors in a play that will relegate dissident women to supporting roles and mutes their contributions, deeming them disturbing and inappropriate.
The Trumps and the Johnsons and the Cuomos and the Contes (but maybe not the Di Maios) of these days will loom large in human history, which will be written by men, for men, the way it’s always been, even as we do not realize it, inured as we are to its bias and the pervasiveness of the male gaze upon the world.
When the world as we knew it has gone, society will call on women to sacrifice their independence for the greater good, the appearance of normality and the glory of men.
History will repeat itself.