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Impactful but tendentious
on 2 October 2016
This book is based on the website of the same name and reports some of the personal narratives that have been left on the website and summarises these stories under general headings of different arenas where sexist attitudes affect the everyday lives of women. Many of the narratives are thought provoking and moving and many made me feel angry and ashamed of the behaviour of men, and sometimes ashamed to be a man.
There is a side of the book, however, that somewhat weakens its impact. Here is an example of what I mean. In the context of gender responses to parenthood she ironically states: “Quite natural for men of course, who have worked so hard and put so much into their prized jobs, to want to maintain a balance and not allow new fatherhood to derail a promotion or an ascending career path”. In this construction of the motivations underlying men’s behaviour she strips men of all care and altruism. She does not seem to consider the possibility that men invest in their careers because they want to support their families. In Laura Bates’s construction they do it because they have an investment in their careers for their own sake. The implication, whilst not overtly stated, is that men have no feelings and are entirely selfish.
Here is another example: In the section on women and the media she has a special objection to the kinds of stories run by celebrity and women’s magazines and (rightly in my view) points out how degrading it all is. She must be aware that the staff, including editors, of such magazines is usually female. She must also be aware that they are only able to succeed because they have a wide readership that buys the magazines, which is also mostly female. Yet, the context she sets this in creates an impression that this is a special horror perpetrated, only by men, upon women, in which women play no part at all. Why do that?
Yet a third example: Ms Bates quotes a ten year old girl who says ‘Most girls think if they want to do something in medicine that they can’t be doctors – because mostly a doctor is a man and a nurse is a girl’. She then follows this up with the statement: “The truth is that these ideas are not just coming from TV and fairy-princess magazines. They are also shamefully reinforced, day after day, by adults in the children’’ lives – from their teachers and neighbours to their own parents and families. We’re forcing our girls into gendered straightjackets, and they’re suffocating.” In this, she is suggesting that there are wider social forces at work that militate against a particular gender fulfilling its potential. This is true, of course, but the evidence is that it is boys that are failing, not girls. It is well known that girls now do better at all levels of higher education than boys; they are more likely to enter university, and medicine, in particular, is on the way to becoming a female dominated profession. Ms Bates must know these facts. Yet, she suggests the opposite picture. Why?
For me, these elements of polemicism and tendentiousness weaken the book. They made me distrust the messenger and ultimately abate the impact of the message. It also seemed unnecessary. The stories from the website were moving and impactful and made their point.