Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
From female eunuch to eco-criminal
By Elizabeth Farrelly
Feminism has failed to deliver political power but women have gained the kind of spending power that is, literally, changing the world.
F YOU THINK working mothers already carry enough guilt, try this. Women, in myth, tradition and customary thought, are society’s unofficial eco-guardians. From the witches and soothsayers who connived with nature against the andro-doxy to the presumption that the “feminine” traits are the receptive ones, we take a fertility-based earth-mother alliance pretty much for granted. And women’s native tendency to accommodate rather than aggress, to nurture and manage rather than slash and burn, and to assume a maternal, strategic view of survival all support such interpretation.
Extrapolating from there, we further presume that feminism, in empowering women, also empowers nature. This is not just flaky eco-feminism but ordinary thought. So much so that many writers see the oppression of women as a form of nature-oppression, as though nature and women, longtime co-oppressed, might rise up together and, like two faces of some ancient goddess, reclaim their rightful place in the universe.
What if this is wrong? What if the opposite were true, if feminism were to prove a primary, if unwitting, perpetrator of eco-crime?
It’s not that women have, as the cliche goes, become men. We haven’t morphed into paragons of aggression, whatever the growing incidence of bad, mad male-pattern girl-driving might suggest. No, it’s more than that; in ecologies as in diets, the irreparable damage arises not from the one-off incident – the birthday binge, the catastrophic oil spill – but from the iterative, unexamined, habitual pattern: the daily grind that we consider harmless because it is so normal; the daily grind that is, of course, women’s turf.
Feminism is a broad church, its cults many and varied, but the primary split is between women wanting to equal men, competing on traditional men’s turf, and women claiming equal status for their own turf. In hunter-gatherer terms it’s the difference between wanting to hunt like men and simply wanting equal recognition for gathering.
The trouble arises because women’s work is essentially repetitive and dull. Even when important, even when ritualised to the level of sacrament or paid to the level of executive-stress, it’s boring. Whereas men’s work, hunting, teems with adrenalin, novelty and adventure.
This forces feminists to choose between types of failure; failure through unequal competition or failure through drudgery. Caught between the dull and the doomed, feminism has generally declined even to articulate the dilemma, opting instead for a fuzz of ideology, emotion and spin. Anne Moir and David Jessel, for instance, brave enough in the late 1980s to write a book on gender-based brain difference, still felt constrained to argue that “women’s work is only inferior on the male value system”.
We wish. In truth, housework will never be heroic. This is no male plot, but a simple, irritating truth. Even childrearing cannot be packaged as groundbreaking. Women may keep the home fires burning, but it’s still men who go out and light new ones. Generally, it’s men who want to. As Camille Paglia famously put it: “If civilisation had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Of course, women’s standing has changed in recent decades, although how much is still a matter for debate. On the one hand, we have a majority of working mothers. We have the pill, long daycare, Condoleezza Rice. On the other hand, huge inequalities persist, especially when it comes to power, wealth and status. Any gathering of powerbrokers outside Norway and New Zealand will be almost exclusively male. And, of that working-mother majority, most still manage house. Latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the number of Australian males in full-time work is still significantly higher than that for females; participation rates hover at about 72 per cent for males, while for females it’s about 57 per cent. Sometimes it looks as if women have taken on the burdens of equality with none of the privileges. Still, for all that, more women have more money, more influence and less time than ever before. They may not wield vast political power, but spending power they do have and it is changing the way we live.
Shopping is the most obvious arena of influence. Men shop, but usually under duress. Women, on the other hand, love to shop. In our hunter-gatherer brains, men (on the whole) hunt, women gather. Retail therapy was invented by women, for women. Compulsive shoppers – Andy Warhol notwithstanding – are almost always female. Without women, shopping-for-fun would be dead. Women shop naturally, easily and well, with a breadth and focus that leaves male shoppers gasping. As American retail-guru Paco Underhill remarks, “men enjoy the mall as a form of recreation [but women] … are at malls to shop”. Now, with the increased dollar-power that feminism has delivered, women shop harder and longer, more voraciously and voluminously, than ever.
In part, it’s relatively innocent. We spend more because we have more. This is understandable, if not entirely defensible. After all, it’s not as if our needs have increased. Indeed, we have fewer unmet needs than any species at any time in history. Feminism itself is an indicator of this, since – as a recent Harvard study showed – gender-equality increases in direct proportion to affluence.
It’s not all innocent fun, however. Feminism also acts as an expenditure enhancer. As Clive Hamilton notes in Affluenza, “feminism has been a marketing bonanza”.
This goes to that moral fuzz that now shrouds feminism like Sleeping Beauty’s forest. Thorny and impenetrable, it is largely unexamined, since to examine it is to question the very possibility of equality.
Those traditional feminine traits that turn us to drudgery are also the selflessness virtues: caring, nurturing, soothing, supporting. So feminism, in rejecting oppression, was impelled also to reject selflessness, replacing altruism with assertiveness, duty and care with aggressive self-concern.
For feminists of the baby-boom generation, sloughing off selflessness was also the natural process of parental rejection. To be selfish was a designer-label statement of being more modern than mother.
Feminism became just another princess game. As was recently noted of feminist Naomi Wolf, “she’s just trying to figure out what’s made her unhappy – and now what makes her happy”. Mindful, as ever, of the big issues, the celebrity feminist focuses on her navel.
Thus feminism has made self-concern not only respectable but admirable. None of that caring, spinsterish, self-abnegating stuff for us; we’re out there grabbing it, as we should be. And commerce has exploited the new selfishness to the hilt, applying “because you deserve it” advertising to every conceivable product, from cars to chocolates, lifestyle to lingerie. It’s ubiquitous and it’s all aimed at women. Hamilton offers the “me-ring” example, a concept invented by De Beers to create demand by designating a woman’s right-hand ring finger the “bling finger”.
Exploiting the elision between feminism and selfishness, De Beers markets the me-ring as a token of independence (rather than commitment) and as “a token of love from you to yourself”. As Hamilton notes, it would be difficult to find a better definition of narcissism, however neatly closeted beneath the feminist aegis.
Narcissism, as Christopher Lasch noted, has become the sin of our times, fuelling not only finger fashions but, more importantly, current trends towards bigger cars, fatter children and ever more bloated houses.
In Australia, houses have doubled in size while families have halved; 67 per cent of men and 52 per cent of women aged 25 to 64 are overweight or obese, as are a quarter of all Australian children. And car sizes are growing faster than petrol prices, with 4WD sales doubling every decade.
All of them – cars, children, houses – can be seen as extensions of the maternal self and all of them are blowing out in parallel with women’s increasing influence and affluence. What is the connection, if any?
At the heart of it are those same nurturing instincts about which we are so conflicted. Mixed with the new narcissism, our vestigial need-to-nurture makes a strange and toxic cocktail. It is often thought that, in having children, women move from being self-centred to being other-centred. Psychically, though, children are less “other” than an extension of self; a stretching, if you will, of the maternal skin around the brood.
The obvious analogy with the big-roofed house, designed for that “tucked-in” feel, links to the ancient identification of woman and house. From prehistoric times the hearth has been commonly seen as the domestic womb, the house’s warm productive centre, and the walls as the maternal body.
Our language and culture are replete with stories and metaphors that perpetuate this house-woman identity, from Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater on. But again, it’s not something imposed. Women feel it, too.
Female victims of burglary and home-invasion typically feel they have been raped. Emily Praeger, long-time Greenwich Village resident, wrote that the events of September 11 left her “wounded in my sense of home”.
This brings us to the safety thing. Safety is a big deal for women and, perhaps, quite rightly. Women are drawn to safety as men are to risk; the male equivalent of problem-shopping is problem-gambling. And safety, as with all our instincts, has evolutionary value, but only up to a point. Here, as with our other appetites, you can have too much of a good thing.
Now, safety has become an obsession bordering on pathology. History may judge us harshly for indulging this obsession when we are personally safer than at any point in history, and in a way that sacrifices being safe long-term for feeling safe now.
This craving for the illusion of safety is what makes us buy 4WDs despite their lamentable safety record. It makes us vote for grandfather-figures despite their environmental wantonness, invest in property not shares, regardless of the market, and want bigger and bigger houses.
As an unnamed McMansion dweller on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes admitted recently, “my dream home is a little bit bigger – for my husband … Already there’s a kitchen, and a special frying room, but I’d like a third kitchen, specially for messy cooking. I would like to add a cool room, cigar bar, a snooker room for the kids …” Always for the kids. Never for myself.
New York psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille notes of the epidemic: “And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you and there was warm liquid. That’s why cup-holders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cup-holder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it’s soft and if I’m high, then I feel safe. It’s amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cup-holders it has.”
Helicopter parenting and gated communities, victim mentality, nanny-statism and the liability crisis that kills street theatre and removes play equipment from public parks; all of it is based on a neurotic determination to feel “safe” – and to feel that our children are safe – whatever the cost. The cost is a way of life – in particular, a way of childhood – that, in being risk-deficient, is also excitement-deficient.
Childhood simply isn’t as much fun as it used to be: it’s not just the removal of fireworks and street play and cycling to school from our children’s lives. There are schools in Sydney where kicking a ball is banned, everywhere, lest someone be hurt. Our children grow, fully loaded with unearned self-esteem but atrophied in their adversity muscle.
Our instincts are to barricade ourselves against a bewildering world in domestic environments so replete with swimming pools, games rooms and home theatres that we never have to leave except in a car that is effectively another house on wheels.
The result, though, is that, driven by instinct towards security and instant gratification, we deprive ourselves of the very stimulus, the connectedness, we need. Studies show that residents of gated communities become so fearful they are often reluctant to emerge at all.
Inside these empires of cocooned contentment we quickly lose our edge. Untested, under-challenged, we respond like chimps in a cage, becoming picky, bored and depressed. We shop, we buy, we eat. Or, in the thin era of feminism, we feed our substitute selves, namely our cars, our children and our houses.
All of it – the food and the lifestyle, the land-guzzling and the air-polluting – increases our eco-footprint well beyond Mother Earth’s capacity, even short term. We are eating our children’s future and feeding it to them, reconstituted with fats and preservatives, on a warmed, decorated, designer-label plate.
This is an edited excerpt from Elizabeth Farrelly’s book Blubberland, to be published next year by UNSW Press.
DRAWING: Illustration: Simon Letch