20th century women – three generations in my family exploring what it means to be a woman. My mum, who believed that it was for men to lead and inspire, but who led and inspired, nonetheless, despite herself. I grew up wondering why I was so crap at being a girl (the endless Christmas and birthday gifts of cookery books and embroidery sets and dolls, all rebuking me for my ineptitude and lack of interest), but finding a way to be the kind of woman I wanted to be without the trappings that irritated and puzzled me. My daughter managing to be so good at being a girl (all that pink, the Barbies and Bratz, the make-up and handbags) and being a fierce and clever and brave woman at the same time.
I thought of us all whilst watching the film 20th Century Women. Annette Bening’s Dorothea was my age in the film, but Mum’s generation. Dorothea died in 1999, five years after my Mum. Their lives and experiences were so very different but there was something about her – the fact that she gathered around her people who needed shelter, nurture, companionship, the way she invited anyone she encountered to come to dinner, her desire and real effort to understand what mattered to her son and the younger women who were part of her life.
I managed not to weep, until the very end. When Jamie says that he can’t explain his mother to his son, that’s when it got me. Because I would have loved to see my Mum, watching my children grow up, and to see them turning to her for the love and pride and support that would have always been theirs. And all I can do is to tell them about her.
If the women in 20th Century Women are all white, straight and comfortably situated, the young women in Girlhood (Bande de filles) certainly are not. They inhabit the banlieue, their home lives are chaotic, their choices limited (by economics, by expectations). The opening sequence is possibly the most powerful cinematic expression of the challenges so many young women face that I can recall – a girls’ American football team on the pitch, physically powerful and fearless, jubilant in victory, they pour out of the stadium a babble of raised voices, laughter, solidarity and shared experience. And then they approach the apartment blocks, with the young men almost seeming to be on guard there, in ones and twos, and their voices are quietened. One by one they slip away from the group and into their own lives. But whilst the film gives us no cosy reassurances about what they face, it gives us along the way other moments of joyous girlhood – for example as they dance and pose and mime (in shoplifted frocks) in a hotel room to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’:
So shine bright tonight,
You and I
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Eye to eye,
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the skyShine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky
And they do shine, they are so alive, they are beautiful.
We’re half the world. We’re all races and religions, all shapes and sizes, all political persuasions. We have disabilities and we have none, we are healthy and we suffer pain and indignity, we are independent and we need help to get by. We have money to burn and nothing at all. We are mothers and we are daughters and sisters, we are friends and wives and lovers. We are gay, straight, bi, trans, and every variant or combination of the above. We are feminists, and we are ‘I’m not a feminist but…’ and we are most decidedly not feminists. We believe in our right to choose, and we believe that women’s fertility should be controlled by the state, by the church, by men. We wear pussy hats, and ‘Make America Great Again’ hats.
I can’t speak for Women. I’m middle aged (at least…), straight, cis-gendered, without disabilities, white, university educated, comfortably off. I am as baffled and dismayed by what many other women believe and fight for as I am about what many men believe and fight for. I can’t claim to have experienced direct discrimination, I’ve never experienced sexual violence or domestic violence. Everyday sexism, yes, of course, over the years I’ve clocked up a fair number of examples of that, in the workplace, on public transport, on the streets. But the fact that, say, FGM doesn’t affect me or mine doesn’t mean I don’t give a damn about it, or that I shouldn’t campaign about it. The fact that my career has encountered no overt obstacles due to my gender, that I live in a society with laws to protect my rights to equal pay and equal treatment, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about the women around the world for whom this is not true. I can’t speak for Women, but I can and do and will speak about the experiences, the threats, the challenges, the obstacles that so many women share (even if I haven’t and don’t).
I check my privilege, I acknowledge it, but it doesn’t have to limit what or who I care about. And I know that in most countries, most of the time, women have to face a whole lot of extra crap that men don’t – they share the burdens of poverty, persecution and oppression, natural and man-made hazards and disasters but with the additional burdens that arise from the way they are viewed in too many societies, by too many men. That their choices are deemed irrelevant, their aspirations ridiculous, their personal integrity always violable. Whether these oppressions are enforced by law or merely by convention, they do oppress, and it takes immense courage to challenge them.
To all those who do, thank you.
And to my Mum, who would never have called herself a feminist, but who inspired me in that aspect of my life, as in so many others, thank you.