My Body and Me: Personal Reflections on the Idea of “Violence” From a Queer[1] South African Woman

by GS Pinheiro

*Please note, this essay contains descriptions of sexual violence

In this short piece, I offer some personal thoughts and reflections around the notion of “violence”. The writing centres on my own associations with the word, and some personal instances of normative and bodily violences that I have experienced, with particular focus on my identification as a queer woman. Throughout the reflection, experiential knowledge is connected to broader ideas around gendered and sexual identities, as I contemplate some of the ways in which my personal narrative might speak to wider gender arrangements in South Africa and beyond.

Furthermore, whilst this piece is not strictly theoretical in nature, I have drawn from, and been inspired by, several feminist theories throughout the process of self-reflection, including that of intersectionality (e.g. Crenshaw, 1991) and feminist theories of the body (e.g. Cleary, 2016). Intersectionality theory offered a useful lens through which to think about my own experiences in relation to those of other queer, South African women. Within feminist circles, there is substantial debate around the notion of “experience” and, in particular, the tendency to represent all women’s experiences as homogenous is critiqued (e.g. Bachmann & Proust, 2020).

In order to problematise and address these issues, intersectionality theory takes into account different identity vectors (such as race, class, occupation, age, sexual orientation, etc.) and considers how they might relate to a person’s gender identity. Moreover, the theory recognises the situatedness of people’s identities within particular socio-political contexts, and embraces the fluidity and plurality of people’s (especially women’s) identities and realities. It thus provides a sophisticated and complex theoretical perspective on the notion of “experience”.

As I was reflecting and writing, therefore, intersectional principles encouraged a mindfulness around the idea that, whilst many queer women will be able to relate to the subject matter of my personal narration, people’s realities and identities are complex, nuanced, dynamic and unique. Especially as I am an academic who writes and works in South Africa, where people’s identities and circumstances vary widely, and where particular positions offer and/or constrain one’s access to space and other resources quite explicitly (particularly where race and class are taken into consideration), I felt it was important to acknowledge this at the outset.

The occasional reference to these, and other theories in the piece serves as a guiding framework through which to make sense of my personal reflections and self-narration. These personal modes of writing can be considered, in themselves, transformative and healing acts that have the potential to establish alternative meaning systems and voices in spaces that have traditionally been dominated by patriarchal perspectives (such as in academia, for example).

One of the core principles of feminist work is to establish spaces and opportunities for women’s experiences and voices to be prioritised, and there is thus an overt disruption of the traditional dichotomy between “academic” versus “personal” writing and research methodologies (e.g. Kiguwa, 2019). The process of self-reflection and narration that the writing of this piece entailed thus allowed me, in many ways, to hear my own voice, and my intention in sharing my experiences is not only to take up space, but to create spaces for other people to reflect on their own ideas and experiences around the theme.

I suppose it is unsurprising (but no less disconcerting) that, when asked to reflect about my personal thoughts and experiences around “violence”, some of the first ideas that come to mind are violences with which I have been confronted at normative and bodily levels. I am a queer woman, and (especially in South Africa, where I grew up and where I now live and work) physical violence – and sexual violence, in particular – features saliently in the realities of many people who identify (and/or who might be read) in this way (Clarke, Ellis, Peel, & Riggs, 2010).

When I speak of “normative” violence, I refer to gendered expectations and norms that are naturalised in many societies – evident particularly in patriarchal settings – and that have been a central feature in my experience as a queer woman.

When I mention “bodily” violence, I am referring to physical forms of violence that I have experienced, mainly in connection with the normative strands of violence that code for a society’s given gender order.

Throughout my twenty-six years in South Africa, I have found that the two strands are interwoven and connected in intimate and intricate ways. There is rigidity and embeddedness in the rules and regulations that govern our experiences of growing up and living in bodies that are gendered even before the moment of our births.

My personal gendered beginnings happened around the time of my own birth, which initiated a process that Judith Butler (1990) terms “girling”. For me, the girling process was replete with violences and traumas – some rather big, and lots of smaller ones, too. The now-trendy ‘Gender Reveal Party’ (which imposes its own kind of violence to unborn people and is deeply reflective of naturalised gender rules in our world) had not yet been popularized in those days. At my birth my parents were delighted that I was a girl and I was promptly bundled into a pink blanket and taken home after a few days, where I would stay blissfully unaware of my “girlness” for the first few years of my life.

One of the first (and most vivid) memories that I have of seeing my body as gendered can be traced back to when I was about three-years-old. I had received a plastic kitchen set (complete with miniature utensils, stovetop and oven) as a Christmas gift from some of our extended family. On Christmas Day, I remember feeling a keen desire to play on the bikes that the boys had been gifted, but I also remember the sharp sting of disappointment that followed after my Aunt prevented this, saying: Girls mustn’t get their clothes dirty; come let’s go and make something in your new kitchen!

As I grew up I began to realise that not only where there “boy things” and “girl things”, but there were also “bad” men and “good” men. A bad man was the one who masturbated in a cinema whilst staring at me (fortunately I was with my mother who took me away swiftly), good men were found in my home. There I had largely been exposed to much softer kinds of masculinities where my father and uncles (perhaps as a result of their Portuguese upbringings) shared in domestic responsibilities and showed tenderness and love – not only towards the women and children in their lives – but towards one another, too. It was not uncommon for the men in our home to kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting, and my father painted pictures and played Barbies with us as much as he played rough-and-tumble in the garden. At that point, I had little clarity as to what and where “bad men” were, but I had internalised ideas that I was not always safe and men were not always trustworthy.

After several childhood years of dresses, hair bows, fake muffins, plastic stovetops, being afraid of my friends’ fathers at sleepovers, worrying when I used public bathrooms, and trying to keep my clothes in pristine condition, I started to develop breasts at the age of ten. I “developed early” (my mother put it down to my “Mediterranean roots”) and became even more confused when these bodily changes meant that people (girls and boys) began treating me differently. I had never been kissed before, and yet the boys in my Grade Four class would tell me that I was a slut (I had to ask my mother what the word meant) and rumours circulated that I had probably kissed three boys each weekend since the beginning of the school year. To younger girls and boys, I was dangerous, but to older men in societal circles, I was desirable: once, at the age of twelve and walking around a shopping mall, I felt the eyes of two men on my chest:

        • Jesus, look at those tits…
        • And that face!
        • Bro, she still reads Baa Baa Black Sheep…
        • Don’t lie, you’d still tap.

To this day, I have deeply conflicting feelings about my body. These experiences speak to the subtle, but cumulative, normative violence that I, and many other women, encounter in our everyday realities. The implicit and explicit transgressions of personal and bodily boundaries that are inflicted by misogynistic patterns, discourses and hierarchies have profound effects on the psyches and experiences of those who are targeted, and trauma is often held in the body long after the event(s) (Cleary, 2016).

When I was thirteen-years-old, my first period arrived and my mother, trying to relay the news to my father, said through the phone: Your daughter became a woman today. Even at that young age, I remember having questions, and confusing thoughts, about whether this was what made me a woman, and/or whether one’s capacity to menstruate delineated who could (and could not) be considered a “real” woman.

In later years, my hair would become a source of trauma, like the time a man came up behind me in the queue at a coffee shop, and ran his hands through my long hair without my consent: Now this is real woman’s hair, he whispered. Or the time a different man spat in my face and called me a lesbian (I had a short pixie haircut) when I refused his advances at a bar. Today, I’ve come closer to seeing my head and body hair as tools for self-expression, self-acceptance and resistance. However, there continue to be remnants of past trauma there, and I still experience moments of dysphoria with my follicular friends (Synnott, 1987).

As an Undergraduate student at university, I was exposed, for the first time, to critical Gender Studies, and to terms such as “gender-based violence”, “consent” and “hate crime”. When I took my first Gender Studies Honours Course in 2016, I felt as if it was the first time that I had the necessary tools, and a language, to put a face to the problems and uncomfortable feelings that I had been experiencing as a young woman. I also realised that, having often felt constrained and unsettled in my own body for so many years, and having encountered several issues around power (my own and that in relation to others – especially men), it was no surprise that I wanted to learn more about “gender” and even to make a career out of its study and exploration. Simultaneously, I was grappling more intensely with issues and questions around my gendered and sexual identities, and feeling as if I had, for many years, presented in ways that had conformed to standards and expectations that I had not set for myself, but that had been imposed. I mourned what I felt were lost years of free expression, autonomy and play.

In the June of my Honours year, an extension of that bodily mourning ensued after I was raped at a party by a man that I knew reasonably well. I found myself believing all kinds of myths that I had heard circulated about sexual violence, and questioning every aspect of my experience. Months later, I developed severe depression, and my anxiety and dissociative symptoms became more acute. Eventually, I sought the guidance of a professional therapist who helped me to come to terms with what had happened to me.

While my body still holds onto the pain (physical, emotional, psychological) that resulted from that experience, I am now able to challenge rape myths and to call others out when I see “rape culture” in action. I am also no longer in a position where I feel I need to remain silent about what happened to me, and have found significant healing in the telling of my story, especially to other women who share similar experiences.

Along with speaking out, one of the most helpful tools in my healing process has been to read, and read again, a book by Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola (2016), which is titled Rape: A South African Nightmare. In Chapter Seven, she writes:

Rethinking and debunking rape myths is an important part of the conversation of how to bring down the rape statistics and how to create a world without rape. Addressing them allows us to move closer to a world in which rape is taken seriously, where survivors can be supported and recover and where rape is dissuaded rather than excused.

However, it has been, and continues to be, at certain moments, immensely challenging to grapple with the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in the world, but in my home country, especially. At times, it has been difficult and painful to think that the possibility of feeling completely safe and comfortable in this body – and in the spaces through which it moves – may not be realised in my lifetime.

When I hear the word violence, I think instinctively of my own body, and I see alongside it the bodies of other women and gender non-conforming people in our country, many of whom share the same, reflexive associations of violence with their gendered identities and physical forms. In South Africa, and in the context of global gender configurations, many of these bodies continue to exist as sites of contestation and violence.

The most recent revival of masculinist politics – especially in capitalist powerhouses such as the United States of America – means that normative and bodily violences against women (and gender non-conforming people) are naturalised as acceptable parts of our lived realities. Sometimes, it feels as though ours are bodies that must police themselves in order to avoid violence; bodies that have remain hyper-vigilant; bodies that must always be ready to run, to fight, to resist; bodies that are shaped by norm and expectation; bodies that are told to make themselves smaller; bodies that are rarely seen as whole, but that are split into parts for objectification and consumption; bodies that are (de)valued according to their appearance; bodies that are taught to be alienated from pleasure and sex; bodies that are commodifiable and expendable; bodies whose rage and resistance are not tolerable.

However, I also don’t want to see or experience my body as associated (solely, inevitably or automatically) with violence. My body, and my identity, are complex, fluid, evolving, multi-faceted and multidimensional. In this body, I have experienced painful trauma, and violence has been inflicted against me because my body is gendered in certain ways. However, I have also experienced – and continue to experience – pleasure, joy, playfulness, vulnerability, strength, intimacy, curiosity, fascination, love and power with and in this body.

Part of my daily resistance against violence, then, is to recognise and accept the ambivalence and conflict that continues to (and likely will, always) characterise my relationship with my body, and to find even a small moment of lightness and presence with it.

When I think about violence, I try to train my attention, energy and focus towards its roots: towards problematic and oppressive histories, enduring structural inequalities and gendered patterns and hierarchies and how these might be challenged. All the while, my body continues to serve as a physical enactment and representation of my own history, and of the ways in which I explore my identity as I continue to embody this body in a gendered world.

References

Bachmann, I., & Proust, V. (2020). Old concerns, renewed focus and novel problems: feminist communication theory and the Global South, Annals of the International Communication Association, 44(1), 67-80, DOI: 10.1080/23808985.2019.1647445

Butler, J. P. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge

Clarke, V., Ellis, S. J., Peel, E., & Riggs, D. W. (2010). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans & queer psychology: An introduction. London, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

Cleary, K. (2016). Feminist theories of the body. In N.A. Naples., R.C. Hoogland., M. Wickramasinghe., W. Ching., & A. Wong (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell encyclopaedia of gender and sexuality studies. Wiley-Blackwell

Crenshaw, K.W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299

Gqola, P. D. (2016). Rape: A South African Nightmare. Jacanda Media.

Kiguwa, P. (2019). Feminist approaches: An exploration of women’s gendered experiences. In S. Laher, A. Fynn., & S. Kramer (Eds.), Transforming Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Case Studies from South Africa (pp.220-235). Wits University Press

Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381. https://doi.org/10.2307/590695.

Footnotes

[1] Queer does not only mean that an individual may inhabit a counter-normative identity, often around sexual orientation or gender identity, but it includes an identification with (citing Nadia Cho): resistance to structural rigidity; challenging the privilege of the “normal”; confronting all forms of oppression; understanding the intersectionality between race, nationality, gender, sexuality and class; searching for alternative ways of being and living; bringing unheard, minority experiences and stories to light; learning to appreciate and celebrate difference; and striving for constructive, fair and happy ways to coexist with each other. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nadia-cho/being-queer-means_b_3510828.html

Am I eligible to be a refugee?

by Hulisani Khorombi 

The United Nations Refugee Agency defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries[1].

Amnesty international further expands on this and says that there are many reasons why it might be too difficult or dangerous for people to stay in their own countries. For example, children, women and men flee from violence, war, hunger, extreme poverty, because of their sexual or gender orientation, or from the consequences of climate change or other natural disasters. Often people will face a combination of these difficult circumstances[2].

People fleeing persecution and conflict have been granted asylum in foreign lands for thousands of years and this is nothing new.

This is where my predicament starts.

The South African government has declared gender-based violence (GBV) a national crisis. According to a new government report, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, and many are assaulted and raped before their death [3].

President Ramaphosa of South Africa has described GBV in the country as a second pandemic next to Covid-19.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country—the killing of women and children by the men of our country,[4]

To summarise this phenomenon we often use the term femicide, which describes the killing of a woman by an intimate partner and the death of a woman as a result of a practice that is harmful to women. Intimate partner is understood as a former or current spouse or partner, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim[5].

Just last year, President Ramaphosa, at an emergency sitting of Parliament said the figures for violence against women and children were similar to those of a country at war[6]. Further describing South Africa as one of “the most unsafe places in world to be a woman”.

Solutions still seem a long way off. In 2018, the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit, which aimed to highlight the plight of women and girls in the country, was hosted by the government, NGOs, and civil society groups in an effort to find a solution to femicide and GBV in South Africa. The President signed and launched Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Declaration in 2019: the intention is a multi-sectoral structure and national strategy to respond to violence toward women and girls. Activists say the declaration is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done[7]. Yet almost every day we wake up to news that another woman has been raped or murdered.

The heightened reality that women of South Africa are continuously being traumatised was evident to me in two instances. The first being a holiday that I took last year to visit a friend in Tanzania. When she suggested that we go shopping at a local market in the evening my first reaction was a “no” because I would not, under normal circumstances, do that in South Africa. Only after her reassurance of safety did I brave myself for such an outing, which turned out to be harmless.

Second was my solo trip that I took recently for my birthday. I sent my live location to a trusted contact every 8 hours in order to ensure that if something happened the police would know where to possibly start looking for my remains.

Having have thought all of these things through and seeing no end in sight it seems that as a woman I am a refugee of violence in my own country. If a refugee is a person who is forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence, where do I go?

Footnotes

[1] https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/

[3] https://www.voanews.com/africa/south-africa-declares-femicide-national-crisis

[4] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/coronavirus-lockdown-femicide-rises-south-africa/

[5] https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1128

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49739977

[7] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/coronavirus-lockdown-femicide-rises-south-africa/

Female Genital Mutilation: sacred cultural practice or human rights violation?

By Hulisani Khorombi

Background

The World Health Organisation estimates that 3 million girls, residing in only 30 countries, mainly in Africa, as well as in the Middle East and Asia, are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) every year[1].

Historically, an estimated 120 million girls and women have undergone FGM, and approximately 2 million procedures are performed annually on girls under the age of 11[2]. Most commonly performed in Africa, FGM is also practised in parts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and in Central and South America. In countries such as Somalia, an estimated 70% to 90% of women have undergone FGM[3].

It is unknown when this practice first developed, but evidence exists that it dates back to the fifth century B.C. preceding Christianity and Islam[4]. In addition to citing religious requirements, proponents of the practice cite several other reasons, one of them being that the procedure aids in preserving cultural identity – just as body piercings, body painting or tattooing are used to identify individuals as members of a particular social group[5].

Regardless of its origins, FGM is practiced as a cultural rite of passage as are virginity testing and male circumcision in some traditional settings. It has been defined as follows.

Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women[6].

The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing[7].

FGM has four major forms:[8]

  • Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  • Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  • Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  • Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

There is no record that South Africa has ever practiced FGM and so in this essay there is only a focus on the harm caused by the practice on an international level.

Justifications for FGM

As mentioned above, FGM is not a small or insignificant procedure: it is the removal of all or parts of the clitoris, labia majora and labia minora, sometimes combined with the narrowing of the entrance to the vagina[9].

Apart from denoting belonging in cultural and religious contexts, the removal of external female genitalia has been part of a celebrated ritual in the lives of girls and women as an effective and acceptable method of shaping their attitudes toward sex and sexuality and as a way of ensuring their virginity and suitability for marriage.  This despite a growing international campaign to abolish FGM, endorsed by both the World Medical Association[10] and the World Health Organization[11]..

Some proponents of the practice claim that FGM helps maintain good hygiene in girls and women and promotes good health. For example, some believe that the clitoris is poisonous and can not only harm man during sexual intercourse, but that it can also kill children during the birthing process[12].

Although the medical community is generally divided as to the health benefits that come with the procedure of male circumcision they are agreed on the fact that FGM has no medical benefits whatsoever[13].

Some advocates of FGM believe that the procedure increases the sexual pleasure of the husband and this therefore enriches the marriage. It is believed that the smaller the opening into the vagina the greater the pleasure that the male receives during sexual intercourse[14]. However this is contradicted by evidence that many men experience pain and frustration while attempting to penetrate a tightly circumcised female[15].

Risks

The manner in which the procedures are typically performed contributes greatly to the medical risks that may be encountered. Even under the most sterile of conditions, the procedures can cause serious medical consequences, including death. In many instances the procedure is performed on young girls any time between infancy and puberty. The age varies depending on the reason for the procedure being conducted[16].

For example in Senegal the procedure is viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood for the young woman therefore targeting girls reaching puberty[17]. In other area such as Nigeria and Burkina Faso, the procedure is performed to prevent a new-born child from touching the mother’s clitoris during the birth process.

Regardless of age, the procedure generally is performed by midwives or older village women who perform the cutting without anaesthesia, using instruments such as razor blades, knives, scissors, pieces of glass or sharp stones[18].

Apart from physical complications that are associated with this extreme procedure, there are also extreme psychological effects as well.

Among girls who live in communities where FGM carries social value, the desire to gain social status, please parents and comply with peer pressure is in conflict with fear, trauma and the after effects of the operation[19].

Furthermore, pregnant infibulated women who enter a medical facility for the birthing process typically need to undergo de-infibulation. After the birth many of these women want to be re-infibulated and go through the process of having their wounds re-stitched[20]. This act of performing such a surgery that is medically harmful raises ethical questions about the health professionals who perform it[21].

Responses

In recent years FGM has come under the international spotlight. Various international organisations have continuously advocated against FGM, believing that the medical risks associated with the cutting make them human rights violations and acts of child abuse.

Some authors suggest that FGM should be considered a violation of the right to life from the perspective of reproduction.

When the very organs that allow human beings to reproduce and to give life to future generations are mutilated, there has been a violation of one of the fundamental human rights[22]

In 1959 the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child and stated that States party to it should take effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices that are prejudicial to the health of children.

Only much later in 1982 did the United Nations Human Rights Sub commission of the World Health Organisation condemn the practice.

African countries have attempted to curb the practice of FGM but legislative efforts have not been as successful as in European countries. In 1983 Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child[23]. This charter contains several articles that can be interpreted to condemn female circumcision.

Apart from international legislative efforts there have been a number of interesting cases dealing with FGM in the United States of America.

Firstly, in 1994 a Nigerian woman by the name of Lydia Oluloro was living illegally in Oregon but asked the courts for political asylum[24]. She feared that her return to her homeland would mean that her two daughters would be forced to undergo the procedure. A federal immigration judge annulled her expulsion order but she was not granted refugee status. The order was merely a mechanism through which her deportation was stayed[25].

The following year two women from Sierra Leone requested political asylum after their genitals had been partly cut off[26]. They claimed that they would be prosecuted in their native land if they opposed the procedure. The woman living in Virginia was granted her request. The judge in that case believed that the woman had suffered an “atrocious form of persecution”[27]. However the second woman living in Maryland was denied her request for political asylum. The judge in her case suggested to the woman that she could “choose to support the practice to maintain tribal unity”[28].

Surprisingly, woman have not been the only ones to seek asylum on the basis of fear of FGM. In the case of Imohi v Immigration and Naturalization Serv[29], Azeez Jimmy Imohi was a male native of Nigeria who sought asylum in the United States on the basis that his home country practiced FGM. He claimed that his return to the country would infringe on his reproductive rights by jeopardizing any female offspring he may have in the future. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the application should be denied and it was confirmed in the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

FGM has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1985. In November of 1993 a medical practitioner was brought before the General Medical Council, charged with performing multiple female circumcisions, knowing the operation to be against the law. He was struck off[30]. Despite this case, 2019 was the first time that there was a successful prosecution in the case of R v N[31] where a woman who mutilated her three-year-old daughter became the first person in the United Kingdom to be found guilty of FGM.

The United Nations General Assembly in December of 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the articles included in the Declaration is that of Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.” Article 5 reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” And Article 15 states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself.”

FGM pertains to all of these articles.

Similar articles are included in the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, unanimously adopted in 1981 by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Organization of Unity (OAU), coming into force on 21 October 1986.

The articles or portions that are relevant to FGM include Article 4: “Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his life and the integrity of his person. No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right”; Article 5: “All forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited”; Article 16: “Every individual shall have the right to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health . . .”; and finally Article 18: “The State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions”.

Impact

As seen by the above laws and cases, the countries that have effectively enacted preventative methods to abolish practices of FGM are Western. However, for the most part legislation has been ineffective. Laws that prohibit a behaviour that is deeply embedded in a culture are most likely not going to find support amongst the people it aims to protect. This leaves little room for change.

The phrase “female genital mutilation” elicits mixed emotions across the globe in medical communities, as well as in small villages. Yet, despite the apprehension many feel about openly communicating about FGM, communication and education are the keys to eradicating this tradition that plagues millions of women throughout the world. By understanding what FGM is, the historical background behind the practice, and the medical risks associated with such procedures, African countries can follow the lead of the Western countries that have for the most part effectively banned FGM[32].

A comforting thought is that year on year, the conversation surrounding FGM has been amplified. Recently, there has been a ban on FGM in Sudan where it is estimated that 9 in 10 women have undergone the life-changing practice[33] .

Looking into the future

It is important to note that this practice is deeply entrenched in culture and as a result, despite countless laws that may outlaw it, there needs to be more activism on the ground level. There is a necessity for “collective abandonment”, in which an entire community chooses to no longer engage in FGM. This has proven to be an effective way to end the practice. It ensures that no single girl or family will be disadvantaged by the decision[34].

In 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF established the Joint Programme on FGM, the largest global programme to accelerate abandonment of FGM and to provide care for girls and women living with its consequences. To date, the programme has helped more than 3 million girls and women receive FGM-related protection and care services. More than 30 million individuals in over 20,000 communities have made public declarations to abandon the practice[35].

The most common motivation is the strong association with marriageability of a young woman and so there is an expectancy to conform to your community in order to marry[36]. Perhaps the discussion surrounding FGM should then be moved to the social requirement of marriage and the status that it affords women.

In the end abandonment of the practice must be rooted in the communities which practice it.

“The people who practice Female Genital Cutting [FGM] are honourable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them. That is why they practice [FGM] and that is why they will decide to stop practicing it once a way of stopping is found…” (Mackie, 2000: 280)[37]

Footnotes

[1] World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/ (accessed on 14 May 2020)

[2] Federal Interdepartmental Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation “Female genital mutilation and health care” (1999) Health Canada

[3]   Federal Interdepartmental Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation “Female genital mutilation and health care” (1999) Health Canada

[4] Morgan in “Female Genital Mutilation” (2009) 94 Southern Illinois University School of Law

[5] As above

[6] World Health Organisation: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation (accessed on 15 May 2020

[7] As above

[8] As above

[9] Clayman (ed) (1989) The American Association Encyclopaedia of Medicine 282

[10] Richards in “Female genital mutilation condemned by WMA” (1993) 307 BMJ

[11] WHO in “A traditional practice that threatens health — female circumcision” (1986) 33 WHO Chronicle

[12] Etru in “What’s culture got to do with it? Excising the harmful traditional of female circumcision,” (1993) 106 Harv.L.Rev (Belief that the child will die if it touches the clitoris during the birthing process originated in the 15th century in the Bini village of the Bendel state, when it was decreed by a king following ‘consultation with an oracle regarding his wives’ stillbirths and infant deaths’)

[13] Burstyn (1995) 30

[14] Bashir (1996) 427

[15] Bashir (1996) 415 and 427

[16] Morgan (1997) 100

[17] Kopelman (1994) 58

[18] Morgan (1997) 101

[19] Toubia, Female Circumcision as Public Health issue. 331 New England. J. med. 712 (1994)

[20] Above: Morgan

[21] Above: Toubia at 715

[22] Female Circumcision: a critical Appraisal, Alison t slack: human rights quarterly volume 10 number 4 (November 1988) page 31

[23] 20 November 1989

[24] Rev in “Female Genital Mutilation and Refugee Status in the United States, A Step in the Right Direction” (1996) 353 B.C. INT’L & COMPL

[25] As mentioned above

[26] Rev (1996) 354

[27] As mentioned above

[28] Rev (1996) 356

[29] No. 94-70705, 1996 WL 297612 (9TH Circ. June5, 1996)

[30] Hartley in “Female Genital Mutilation: a dilemma in child protection” (1994) 443 Archives of diseases in childhood Bryan Hartley, archives of disease in childhood . 1994: 70: 443

[31] https://perma.cc/6BFR-PX4H

[32] Above: Morgan

[33] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/world/africa/sudan-outlaws-female-genital-mutilation-.html (accessed on 25 May 2020)

[34] https://www.unfpa.org/news/top-5-things-you-didnt-know-about-female-genital-mutilation

[35] https://www.unfpa.org/news/top-5-things-you-didnt-know-about-female-genital-mutilation

[36] https://www.hart-uk.org/blog/fgm-story-worlds-oldest-patriarchy/

[37] https://www.hart-uk.org/blog/fgm-story-worlds-oldest-patriarchy/

A bitter makoti

by Belinda Pakati

A large body of women simply abandoned the notion of sisterhood. Individual women who had once critiqued and challenged patriarchy re-aligned with sexist men. Radical women who felt betrayed by the negative competition between women often simply retreated. And at this point, feminist movement which was aimed at positively transforming the lives of all females, became more stratified. The vision of sisterhood that had been the rallying cry of the movement seemed to many women to no longer matter.

Feminism Is For Everybody, Passionate Politics. bell hooks (2000)

A woman supporting another woman should be natural, but very few women support other women, instead they exacerbate violence and shame towards other women.

It was on a Saturday morning when I entered the house of a friend’s mother. The mother did not even pretend to be happy about what was about to happen that day. Her face was unpleasant and unfriendly. I noticed from the ash tray that she had smoked more than ten draws to maintain composure.

My friend had arranged for his Uncle and Aunt to negotiate for him to pay lobola[1] for his girlfriend. They had one child and had been together for three and half years. But my friend’s mother had never accepted their relationship, even though there was a child. She did not seem to like the fact that her son had made his own choice for a partner.

It has become clear that the mother will never accept the girlfriend as her makoti[2].

The girlfriend and her parents had come over to the boyfriend’s house to announce that she was pregnant and to request that the boyfriend acknowledged the pregnancy. But before the boyfriend could say anything, his mother told the girlfriend’s family that she could not accept and acknowledge the matter they came to address. She said her son already had a partner and she would never accept anyone else.

An altercation ensued and the girlfriend got very angry, burst into tears, and accused her boyfriend’s mother of ill treatment, telling her that it was not up to her to acknowledge the relationship. She also mentioned that the alleged “other woman” was no longer a part of the son’s life and that he had told this woman he had found someone else.

Seeing how angry his girlfriend was, the boyfriend eventually intervened and told his girlfriend’s family that he was indeed responsible for her pregnancy.

I was perplexed by the time it took for my friend to respond to his mother. I found it annoying that he just sat there and said nothing while his mother rejected the partner he had chosen for himself and, in a way, the baby too. It took the woman’s tears and pain for him to speak up.

I also felt helpless because I was not allowed to say anything, even though I could see that the mother was being unfair. It takes two people to make a baby, and the focus was on the girlfriend, not the boyfriend who had impregnated someone unknown to his family.

My helplessness surfaced because I knew the truth, I knew how their relationship started and I could see how attached they were to one another.

And I had also seen the mother would never accept the younger woman as the daughter-in-law of the family.

I recalled how my friend’s mother and siblings (especially the female sibling to be precise) used to say that the new girlfriend had given my friend some sort of a manipulative potion. They even took my friend to an umfundisi[3]to pray for him to leave the new girlfriend. “She comes from a poor family and her mother is a drunkard, her mother needs money”, they said.

A year passed, the lobola was paid and my friend and his now wife were blessed with their second child. Then my friend lost his job and soon after his wife discovered that she was expecting another child. The mother-in-law was not pleased to hear there was a third child coming.

My friend’s mother again said bad things about the makoti, that she was irresponsible, filthy and lazy, that what she knew best was to make babies, that if she thought she would get anything from her son, she would get it over her dead body.

As a woman it pained me to hear what was said about my friend’s wife by another woman. I felt she should help and guide her as her own child, especially as she was married to her son. She should have given her an opportunity to grow into the family, to feel confident to speak for herself, to get along with everyone.

It was difficult to hear her being judged because of her poor family background, to watch her having to defend herself during the process of announcing the pregnancy, because culturally she was expected to keep quiet.

The way my friend acted felt like it was not right. Sometimes he would side with his wife but because he could not provide for both families, he would get stressed. Then he would be angry at his children and swear at his wife, telling her how uneducated she was, that she would not inherit the house. She would also be reminded her about her drunkard mother who failed to find a home for her. I saw how he repeated his mother’s abuse of his wife.

The situation now, five years and three children later, is that my friend’s mother still does not acknowledge the makoti. And the makoti has grown into the habit of being emotionally, verbally and physically abused. She does not seem to care anymore. She has lost respect for her husband and has no respect for her in-laws. She does not conform to cultural norms. If her mother-in-law says something that does not sit well with her, she will not hesitate to answer back, she will look directly into her eyes to make it clear to her that she means what she is saying. She is now a disrespectful and bitter makoti.

At some point the mother-in-law tried to mend ways but the makoti did not want anything to do with her. “Mestige a tshollogile a tshollogileokase a olle, Lentswegeletswile le tswile gale bowe go tshwane le seatla”, she said. What is said cannot be erased or reversed, when water has been spilled it cannot be fetched.

Reflecting on this story I have some questions.

Do parents turn their children (like the son in this story) into perpetrators, thinking they are protecting them from women who want to use them?

Do elders misuse culture to oppress others?

Do some woman perpetuate violence against other woman?

Instead of working together in solidarity do women sometimes create the conditions for gender-based violence to thrive?

Are we all part of the system that creates a bitter makoti?

 

Shalate Belinda Pakati is a senior project manager who coordinates student outreach and community engagement programmes within CSA&G. She is also responsible for the HIV testing and counselling work and ongoing student support. She has a background in Human Resource Management. She is passionate about working with and giving back to the community

Footnotes

[1]the practice of paying a bride price

[2] a term which can mean a bride, a newly-wed woman, a daughter-in-law, often used by a woman’s husband’s family to refer to her

[3] A priest

(Un)masking other dangerous pandemics within the Covid-19 lockdown

By Tinashe Mawere

Introduction: Silencing ‘disobedient’ voices

On 13 May 2020, some youths from Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, the MDC Alliance, performed a flash demonstration in Warren Park D, in Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital city). They were protesting against the state’s failure to provide care and sustenance for the disadvantaged and vulnerable during the Covid-19 lockdown. Later on, reports emerged that three women, namely, the Member of Parliament for Harare West, Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, who had been part of the demonstration, had been arrested and were in police custody. These women were accused of breaking the rules and regulations of the Covid-19 lockdown. The police, through a government-run and pro-government newspaper, the Herald, confirmed the arrest. In a story published in the Herald, the National police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner, Paul Nyathi, confirmed: “the police arrested the three in Harare today in connection with an illegal demonstration, which occurred in Warren Park earlier in the day. They are in our custody and we are still making further investigations into the issue,” (Maphosa 2020). Subsequently, details emerged that the three women could not be traced and the police and government officials denied having ever arrested them. After two days, there were reports that the women had been found dumped on the outskirts of Bindura, some 120km away from Harare, and that they had been beaten up, forced to drink each other’s urine and sexually harassed by state security agents.[1]

Within this story, there are contestations, with state authorities claiming that the abduction was stage-managed to damage the national image of the country[2] while the women were claiming to have been abducted and tortured because they had protested against the government. With the Zimbabwean state having a history of abducting and torturing oppositional voices (Mukoko 2016; Wilkins 2012; Sachikonye 2011), and earlier acknowledgement by the police that the trio had been arrested, the issue remains sensitive and there have been calls for independent investigations into the matter. In the midst of all this, the deputy minister in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Energy Mutodi, posted a very interesting Tweet with regards to how the women found themselves in the troublesome situation. I posit that Mutodi’s Tweet reveals the considerable extent to which masculine authoritarianism and patriarchy remain deeply embedded in the nation of Zimbabwe.

Mutodi’s Tweet: Prototyping the sexualities of woman-public figures

Mutodi’s Tweet read as follows: “Details emerge MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura with their lovers who are artisanal miners. They parked their car at a police station for safety but tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services” (Energy Mutodi Tweet May 20, 2020).[3]

Since stories of abduction are not new, as shown by scholars above, I locate abductions as discourses of state-making in Zimbabwe. Whether real or re/imagined, abductions are part of the ‘everyday’ and are discourses and performances of the Zimbabwean nation that should be problematised. However, rather than focusing on the raging debate about whether this particular abduction was real or stage-managed, in this work, I focus on the above abduction story as a discourse of state-craft. Mutodi’s Tweet can be located discursively within the broader politics of gender, the silencing of women, and the mis/representation of women and women’s images in dominant patriarchal texts of imagining the nation. This discursive analysis exposes that Mutodi’s Tweet re/represents and performs the prevailing and naturalised surveillance of women and women’s bodies that characterises Zimbabwe and other patriarchal societies. The Tweet was meant not only to shame and silence the three women politically, but also to silence the impetus narrative of women abuses in Zimbabwe, to silence women’s political and public participation, as well as to silence women’s sexualities and sexual liberties. Moreover, the Tweet produced the effect of cementing existing and dominant patriarchal narratives pertaining to women and their identities and also their place and space within the nation.

Normalising dominant images of women: “…went out for a romantic night…”

As a public and official figure, deputy Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Mutodi’s Tweet epitomises the position of the state and reveals and drives public opinion. His expression that “MDC youths Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova & Cecilia Chimbiri went out for a romantic night to Bindura” should not be read as misplaced satire, but rather as satire that is re/produced within and is performing particular dominant knowledges and culture. The lack of empathy that the Zimbabwean state has towards women who experience abuses, especially sexual abuses, is revealed in the Tweet. Also revealed is the lack of seriousness and the denials that the state makes on cases of women abuse, especially sexual violence. In Zimbabwe, many cases of women abuse are not reported, while others are not attended to (Mashiri & Mawire 2013; Shamu et al 2013) because of this denial.

Since Mutodi draws attention to the women’s unexpected romantic outing, there is a clear perpetuation of dominant discourses that associate ‘obedient’ women with the home and the private space, thereby shifting the blame on the survivors of abuse for inviting trouble to themselves by venturing into the public space. The glaring patriarchal narrative in the Tweet is clear. Mutodi is simply articulating that the home and the private is the only appropriate space for women, and that public spaces are unsafe, hence women who cross boundaries have themselves to blame if they get into trouble, or if they face the precariousness of the public space. This is a continuation of the Zimbabwean state’s actions where operations that criminalise the ‘unsanctioned’ presence of women in public spaces (like streets, for example) are implemented (Masakure 2016, Mawere 2016; Gaidzanwa 1993). Following Mutodi’s Tweet, and dominant knowledge around images of women, only those women who are defiant, liars, poisonous/evil and with sexual liberties get into trouble (Mawere 2019, 2016; Sathyamurthy 2016; Gaidzanwa 1985).

To destroy the political aspirations and social standing of women, patriarchy turns to the discourse of sexuality, where it banks on the normalised script of women’s sexual purity (Mawere 2019). This is a very strong weapon, considering how female sexuality is a social taboo and how making it public erodes respectable notions of womanhood. In Mutodi’s Tweet, associating the women with an act of the ‘night’ invites the public to view them as sex workers. In a society like Zimbabwe, where sex work is stigmatised, this is a deliberate aim to position the women as social deviants and as poisonous to the nation. With such alleged impurity, the women cannot fit into ideas of archetypal womanhood that comply with Zimbabwe’s expected ‘mothers of the nation’ (Mawere 2019; Chadya 2003; Hunter 2000). This discourse of impurity, often associated with women in politics, those who come into the public arena and those with ‘voices’, associates women with negative images such as those of ‘whores.’ Considering the patriarchal identity that remains central to Zimbabwean nationhood, this robs the three women (and any other woman who dares to transgress patriarchal boundaries) of social and national standing. Associating them with the ‘night’ reduces them to the common media image of ‘ladies of the night’, which is typically associated with transactional sex and the poisoning of national men and nationhood. The same method has been used to shatter the political ambitions of Zimbabwean women like Grace Mugabe, Thokozani Khupe, and Joice Mujuru, who have been delegitimised in the eyes of the Zimbabwean public, primarily because of their perceived transgression of patriarchal rules (Mawere 2019).

The public, official and yet insensitive nature of Minister Mutodi’s sentiments reflects a misogynistic society that has, for years, normalised and typified the identities of women. Mutodi is requesting the society to pass moral, cultural and national judgements on the case at hand. In patriarchal societies, there tend to be strong sentiments that women invite trouble for themselves, owing to their wayward characters and/or failure to conform to expectations. Survivors of rape and gender-based violence are usually blamed for inviting the perpetrator, hence cases of sexual violations have been peripherised. Mutodi’s Tweet confirms the official and societal view that stories of women abuse, sexual violence and other violations are manufactured or part of the package for their deviance. This is a backlash against efforts that are being made to raise awareness of the existence and ugliness of these issues.

(Un)mothering defiant women: “…the lovers are artisanal miners…”

Considering the public and media image of makorokoza (artisanal miners) in Zimbabwe, the association of Joana, Cecilia and Netsai with artisanal miners is used to erase them from the narrative of mothers of the nation. This association confirms the women to be immoral, careless, dirty and pathogenic. This is in the context of the negative images that characterise artisanal miners in Zimbabwe.

Although artisanal miners at times possess large sums of money from their mining activities, they are frequently accused of spending it recklessly on alcohol and commercial sex workers. By and large, makorokoza are associated with social deviance, carelessness, dirt, and diseases, especially sexually-transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. A narrative that links the three women with artisanal miners simultaneously delinks them with the imagined mothers of the nation. The deputy minister’s assertion that the women’s “lovers are artisanal miners” therefore sensualises an imagination of the three women’s contamination.

Mutodi’s Tweet can thus be regarded as a way of presenting Joana, Cecilia, Netsai and all ‘disobedient’ women not only as morally, socially and physically diseased, but also as politically diseased and inadequate to offer anything positive to the nation. This is especially true in the context where Zimbabwean ‘black’ women symbolise “an uncontaminated essence, the custodian of ancestral traditions” that co-exists with them being symbolically coded with land and its ‘purity’” (Lewis, 2004:198). To push Lewis’s idea further, in the Zimbabwean state’s macho nation-building projects that are characterised by the symbolic configuration of womanhood for masculine political projects, such as being ‘mothers of the nation,’ women’s sexual activities that are disassociated with national re/production and focused on satisfying women’s own pleasures are debased. This speaks to cultural taboos and claims that view sexual pleasure and freedom as dangerous and irresponsible for womanhood (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982).

Mutodi was, therefore, deliberately asserting that abuses of women who are dirty and national pollutants do not deserve national attention, and ultimately, that the women do not deserve justice. He was calling for the wider Zimbabwean society to dismiss allegations that the women had been abused. As members of the MDC Alliance, their contaminated nature and inadequacy, which is buttressed by their physical contact with the ‘pathogenic’ artisanal miners, mirrors the contaminated nature and inadequacy of their party, hence inviting citizens to ditch the polluted and polluting party.

Evoking “Karma is a bitch”: “…tragedy struck when they demanded foreign currency for services”

Mutodi buttresses his assertion that the three women are defiled national bodies by locating them within discourses of transactional sex. For him, what befell these women is normal and expected, given the space they had chosen to occupy. In many ways, Mutodi is not only aligning himself with the insensitivity of the state towards commercial sex workers, but is also avowing that sex workers should not have agency and justice in Zimbabwean society, where the sexual purity of women is valued. The intention of this narrative is likely aimed at tainting the three women’s (and all oppositional women’s) social, political and national and images.

In addition, Mutodi’s insensitive patriarchal narration of what befell the three women reveals the ‘common-sense’ discourse of women, which constructs young urban women and particularly women in politics as ‘prostitutes’ (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985) as he identifies them as providers of sexual services. This is very disturbing, especially in the context where the women made claims of sexual harassment and assault. What is apparent in Mutodi’s use of discourse is that the women got into trouble as a consequence of breaking the boundaries and demarcations of national (patriarchal) space. Mutodi’s Tweet is therefore, very significant and instrumental to the socio-economic and political control of all women, as it demonstrates the consequences of disobedience. Controlling women’s bodies and sexualities through public ‘acts’ that other citizens can witness is a very powerful metaphor of cultural surveillance and state control (Mawere 2016). Through the Tweet, the deputy minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services in the Zimbabwean state is simply acting out the control of women and their bodies and warning women and other subjects of the nation that they are under national surveillance.

Conclusion: The common narrative

Dominant patriarchal narratives suppress women’s public participation, female pleasure and female freedoms by constructing female eroticism as unspeakable (Mawere 2019; Birrell 2008; Ranciere 2006; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Following the above therefore, the public space is positioned as unsuitable for women and what befell the three women who had ‘escaped’ from their confinements is a result of the taboo acts of being at wrong places, seeking erotic pleasure and ‘transacting’ their sexual ‘purity’ for money. The women’s participation in oppositional politics is equated to ‘selling out’ their bodies and therefore making them defiled national bodies who deserve punishment and who are not worth any national sympathy or agency.

Mutodi’s and the state’s reason for shaming the three women is to limit the contagious possibilities of their ‘rebellious’ bodies. It is clear that women who break spatial boundaries and occupy public spaces that are dominated by, and seen as the preserve for men, are associated with sexual freedoms and are thus seen as threats to societies since sexual freedoms have been associated with defiance and power. The erotic is a crucial source of power and agency for women and its suppression is instrumental to the reproduction of patriarchal systems (Mawere 2016; McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). The close ties between sexuality and power make sexual pleasure and eroticism fields of political significance (McFadden 2003; Lorde 1982). Silencing women by embarrassing them through the exposition of their real or imagined sexual behaviours to the public is characteristic of Zimbabwean politics (Mawere 2019).

In a context where respect and honour for women is tied closely to their ability to keep their sexual lives private, such exposures are meant to undress (discursively and at bodily levels) the women, shame them and take away their agentive power. Mutodi’s attempts to embarrass the three women portray an image where the sexualities of the three women are contaminated. This enables him to naturalise and sensualise the confinement of “serious national women” and “Mothers of the Nation” to private and domestic spaces. This is clearly a surveillance of the three women’s and any woman’s political and public participation. What we witness in Mutodi’s Tweet is ultimately a spectacle of the other dangerous pandemics besides Covid-19 that require urgent questioning and critique. These dangerous pandemics include state repression, gender violence, toxic and patriarchal nation-building projects and many forms of physical, structural and symbolic violence.

Bibliography

Birrell, R. 2008, Jacques Rancière and the (Re) distribution of the sensible: Five lessons in Artistic Research, Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 1-11.

Chadya, J.M. 2003, Mother politics: Anti-colonial nationalism and the woman question in Africa, Journal of Women’s History, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 153-157.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1993, The politics of the body and the politics of control: An analysis of class, gender and cultural issues in student politics at the University of Zimbabwe, Zambezia, vol 2, no. 2, pp 15-33.

Gaidzanwa, R. 1985, Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature. Harare: College Press.

Hunter, E. 2000, Zimbabwean nationalism and motherhood in Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, African Studies, vol. 59, pp. 229-243.

Lewis, D. 2004, Revisioning patriarchal nationalism: Yvonne Vera’s ‘Nehanda’, JCAS Symposium series 20. pp 193-208.

Lorde, A. 1982, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Zami/Sister Outsider/Undersong, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Masakure, C. 2016, ‘We will make sure they are rehabilitated’: Nation-building and social engineering in Operation Clean-up, Zimbabwe, 1983, South African Historical Journal, vol. 68, no.1, pp 91-111.

Mashiri, L & Mawire, P. 2013, Conceptualisation of gender-based violence in Zimbabwe, International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 15, pp 94-103.

Mawere, T. 2019, Gendered and Sexual Imagi(nations), the 2018 Zimbabwean E(r)ections and the Aftermath. Pretoria: CSA&G Press.

Mawere, T. 2016, Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture, PhD Dissertation. Cape Town: University of the Western Cape.

McFadden, P. 2003, Sexual pleasure as feminist choice, Feminist Africa, issue 2, pp. 50-60.

Mukoko, J. 2016, The Abduction and trial of Jestina Mukoko: the fight for human rights in Zimbabwe, Sandton: KMM Review Publishing

Ranciere, J. 2006, The politics of aesthetics, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill, with an afterword by Slavoj Zizek, London: Continuum.

Sachikonye, L.M. 2011, When a state turns on its citizens. Institutionalized violence and political culture, South Africa: Jacana Media.

Sathyamurthy, K. 2016, “Femme Fatale: Tropes of deviant sexuality and empowerment” (Available at https://go.distance.ncsu.edu/gd203/?p=17783 , accessed 20 April 2020).

Shamu, S. et. al. 2013, Opportunities and obstacles to screening pregnant women for intimate partner violence during antenatal care in Zimbabwe, Culture, Health and Sexuality: An International Journal for Research, Intervention and Care, vol. 15, no. 5, pp 511-524.

Maphosa, V.  2020, “MDC-A legislator Mamombe, 2 others arrested” Herald, 14 May 2020 (Available at https://www.herald.co.zw/mdc-a-legislator-mamombe-2-others-arrested/, accessed 20 July 2020).

Wilkins, S. 2012, Ndira’s wake. Politics, memory and mobility among the youth of Mabvuku, Harare, MSc Dissertation, Oxford: University of Oxford.

Footnotes

[1] Abducted MDC Joana Mamombe and Cecilia Chimbiri speak on the painful ordeal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7VpFpemjkI

[2] Zimbabwe accuses MDC activists of made up state torture claims https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/zimbabwe-accuses-mdc-activists-of-made-up-state-torture-claims

[3]  Energy Mutodi’s Tweet can be found on the following link; https://www.google.com/search?q=mutodi+twitter*joana+mamombe+abduction&rlz=1C1GCEU_enZA897ZA897&sxsrf=ALeKk01n9XLS4NR76J9vP5NYrLn0yPAM8w:1597319230433&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjxosrqjZjrAhXDoXEKHXIdC0wQ_AUoAXoECAwQAw&biw=1366&bih=657#imgrc=qOaoCGXJFZxxuM

Powerful in Pink: The corporatisation and commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’

By Elize Soer

South Africans commemorate Women’s Month in August to pay tribute to the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women.[1] Various corporations have promptly used the opportunity to advertise everything from shine-boosting shampoo to insurance in the name of ‘celebrating women’.[2] This has not been specific to Women’s Month, but forms part of a broader trend in which aspects of feminism and ‘women’s empowerment’ have been appropriated by corporate advertising campaigns to further capitalist imperatives, primarily boosting sales to increase profit. The following piece will provide a brief contextualisation of Women’s Month and will then provide analyses of various Women’s Month/Day and/or ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns by some of the world’s most famous corporations. The chosen campaigns will be contextualised in relation to the tendency of some corporations to engage in what scholars have referred to as ‘marketplace feminism’ (Zeisler, 2016), ‘postfeminism’ (McRobbie, 2009) and ‘neoliberal feminism’ (Hengeveld, 2015).

The piece will discuss a range of Nike campaigns because they epitomise the trend. Moreover, by historicizing Nike’s campaigns, we can see how the trend evolved and in which ways gendered portrayals changed over time. Thereafter, I will discuss campaigns by various other corporations including Pantene’s ‘Braids of Strength’ (2019), Hyundai’s ‘I_Can’ (2019), Barbie’s ‘Did You Know’ (2018) and Levi’s ‘Shape My World’ (2019). These campaigns were by no means exceptional and there are various other campaigns that reflect and promote the same discourses, for example MacDonald’s International Women’s Day advertisement (2020) and Netflix’s ‘#SheRules: International Women’s Day’ (2019). These campaigns were chosen because they represent the trend, but there were many other campaigns that could have served the same purpose. Summarily, the piece will argue that it is problematic that transnational corporations built on exploitation are appropriating ‘progressive’ ideas while simultaneously (re)producing the same exploitative structures that activists have been critiquing.[3]

Similar to Women’s Month in South Africa (SA), the origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) can be traced back to protests against exploitative and oppressive policies. The Socialist Party of America initiated IWD in order to honour the garment workers’ strike in New York in 1908, which can be situated in a struggle against capitalist economic exploitation. As Catherine Rottenberg noted, this tradition is still evident in many protests for gender justice, which often connect feminist issues with demands for racial, economic and/or climate justice (Rottenberg, 2019). However, these inspiring movements have been paralleled by a more worrisome trend- the increased commodification of ‘women’s empowerment’. Corporations often use images of ‘women’s empowerment’ as a part of ‘brand activism’, which refers to corporate attempts to improve a brand’s reputation “by using some popular and often progressive cause in their PR and advertising campaigns” (Rottenberg, 2019).

As mentioned in the introduction, the commodification of Women’s Month/Day is typified by the fact that various corporations and retailers have linked ‘celebrating women’ to buying effeminate gifts. These gifts include spa treatments, scented lotions, lingerie and perfumes. There are even lists of ‘empowering gifts’ such as wine glasses and bracelets (Murden, 2020). The first problem with these gifts is that they are usually pink and stereotypically feminine. This reinforces a gender dichotomy in which women are associated with ‘self-care’ products typically aimed at ‘improving’ their physical appearance. Ironically, this reinforces precisely the problematic binarised discourses around femininity that most feminists have aimed to oppose.

The notion of ‘empowering’ products has not been limited to Women’s Month. Katy Perry branded her signature fragrance, Killer Queen, as “royal, rebellious, and feminist” (Zeisler, 2016: 9) while various brands such as Dior launched ranges of T-Shirts with slogans like ‘We Should All be Feminists’[4] and ‘The Future is Female’. T-shirts with feminist slogans are not necessarily problematic, but these shirts often undermine the very causes they claim to support (Kvidal-Røvik, 2018: 210).[5] As Catherine Rottenberg noted, “activism and empowerment here is equated with buying an expensive t-shirt with words like ‘You Go Girl’. Women, in other words, are encouraged to express their solidarity not through struggle or protest, but by shopping” (Rottenberg, 2019). She labelled this type of feminism ‘neoliberal feminism’[6] and argued that it is marketable “precisely because it is a non-threatening feminism. It doesn’t address the devastation wrought by neoliberal capitalism, neo-imperialism or systemic misogyny and sexism.”

Andi Zeisler similarly critiqued this form of feminism for being uncritical of capitalist structures and for promoting a “glossy feel-good feminism” that ignores entrenched forms of inequality (Zeisler, 2016: 10). It draws on a vocabulary of ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ to promote an individualistic discourse that transposes structural and social problems into individual (in)adequacies (McRobbie, 2009: 1; Cole & Hribar, 1995: 354). The notion of individual empowerment featured strongly in all of the campaigns that will be discussed. This logic suggests that everyone can succeed within capitalism if they are dedicated enough and, from a gendered lens, that every woman can be ‘empowered’ if she chooses to be. It is implied that individuals must not allow prejudices associated with circumstances of class, race, gender, sexuality or physical ability to impede their efforts, “as if transcending these things is simply a matter of will and effort” (Helstein, 2003: 288).

The notion that one must simply work harder to transcend one’s circumstances is a fundamental capitalist mantra. Debra Capon and Michelle Helstein argued that advertisements can be considered to be the myths of contemporary (Western) culture and it is thus not really surprising that they would promote capitalist ideologies (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 40). According to their definition, myths funcion to “naturalize speech, transmuting what is essentially cultural (historical, constructed, and motivated) into something which it materializes as natural (transhistorical, innocent, factual)” (2004: 56). The myth that one must simply work harder to transcend all circumstances was particularly evident in Nike’s campaigns. If we assume that myths function to naturalise ideas that are constructed in specific historical periods, then a short discussion of Nike’s history seems appropriate.

Nike was founded in 1964, but its sharp ascent began during the Reagan era (1981-1989) in the United States (U.S.). Ronald Reagan has become associated with his neoliberal economic doctrine, which demonised state support and favoured privatisation. His ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on AIDS’ also followed a logic that foregrounded free will and located “insufficient free will in the bodies of others” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355). The advertising campaigns of the era promoted free will, the ‘deep self’ and the ‘hard body’ and encouraged consumers to work on their bodies and to consume commodities in order to maintain the body. Working on the body was presented as a means of taking control and displaying one’s self. Concurrently, consumer power was championed as a means of transcendence at a time when political options were narrowing. Summarily, It is not a coincidence that Nike thrived in the decades characterised by cultural emphases on “fitness, health, lifestyle, addiction, and individual responsibility” (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 355).

During the same period, advertisers began to respond to the heightened awareness of feminist critiques of the images of women in advertising. More and more advertisements started to contain signs associated with so-called ‘positive images of women’. Advertisements that incorporated commodity feminism advanced an image of the ‘new woman’ who was defined by a series of attitudes and signs based on the characteristics of the liberal subject, including individuality, independence and choice. Nike’s advisers informed the company about the potential of the rising ‘women’s market’ in 1979. However, Nike’s executives dismissed the advice because they thought it would harm the company’s image as an “authentic and serious” sport brand, in contrast to Reebok, which did cater to the ‘women’s market’ (Cole & Hribar, 1995: 359).

Nike finally ventured into the ‘women’s market’ in 1987 with a TV campaign featuring the famous triathlete Joanne Ernst. The advertisement concluded with Ernst sitting on a locker room bench and telling the audience that “it wouldn’t hurt if you stopped eating like a pig” (cited in: Hengeveld, 2015). Unsurprisingly, the advertisement was not the breakthrough into the ‘women’s market’ that Nike had hoped for. Nike then hired the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, wich actively drew on feminist critiques of the advertising industry and incorporated these critiques into subsequent Nike campaigns. The first advertising message the agency created for Nike (in 1990) was ‘empowerment’. The campaign encouraged women to reject ‘traditional holds’ and challenged them to become ‘empowered’ through fitness. Nike promoted an image of empowerment that corresponded with the Reaganite malieu. For example, one ad closed with the line “the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be”, reiterating the point that women could take control of their destiny and exert personal agency through buying shoes (Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 11).

It was thus in the early 1990s that Nike began capitalising on calls for gender justice by using critiques of patriarchy as a marketing strategy. However, Nike executives were still adverse to using women with muscular bodies in their ads. The emphasis was not on women as competitors, but on women who were healthy and fit, “but not too fit, always pretty” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 14). Although the depiction of women has changed over time, there has been a continuous emphasis on beauty. Standards changed from voluptuousness to thinness to being ‘toned’, but cultural norms continued to promote the importance of beauty. Beauty also continued to be conceptualised in a narrow (Western) way and images of beauty remained predominantly white and ‘not too masculine’.  For example, Nike launched a range of sports bras in 1999 with the tag-line “After years of exercise, what kind of shape will your breasts be in?” (cited in Grow & Wolburg, 2006: 22). The bra was thus not advertised by appealing to athletic performance, but to fears that women’s breasts would become ‘deformed’ by athletic training.

Since these first campaigns, Nike has attempted to brand itself as a purveyor of equality and justice for women. This image was somewhat tarnished by multiple sweatshop scandals that “made it crystal clear that Nike profited from, rather than, railed against patriarchy,” (Hengeveld, 2015). Nonetheless, Nike’s advertisements continue to push an emancipatory narrative that focuses on “empowerment embedded in bodily maintenance and the consumption of Nike products” (Helstein, 2003: 282). These ads have been targeted more towards the global north, however, Nike has also had multiple campaigns in the global south. On the one hand, these campaigns take the form of the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ programmes.[7] However, for the sake of this piece, I want to focus on one of Nike’s recent campaigns featuring the famous South African athlete Caster Semenya.

Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign was launched in 2019 and featured multiple videos with a range of athletes, including Sam Kerr, Virgil van Dijk and Caster Semenya. In the video centred on Semenya, she shows the audience her home in Soweto, a township in SA. The narrative of the video explains that Semenya overcame her circumstances and rose from poverty to become an Olympic gold medalist, or in Semenya’s words “I moved from rurals to international stage”. Throughout the video, she made multiple comments emphasising that “you dream it and then you do it” and  “even if you are coming from a dusty place like this, you can be whoever you want”. After the inspirational video, Nike’s infamous slogan ‘Just Do It’ appears with the company’s signature swoosh (Nike, 2019).

The advertisement clearly advances the capitalist notion that structural and social problems can be overcome through personal lifestyle choices. Accordingly, success can be achieved through the force of individual will, personal perseverance and self-responsibility (McDonald, 2004: 28). It is important to note that Semenya is an exceptional athlete who has overcome multiple forms of discrimination and that she certainly deserves admiration. However, this is where the conceptualisation of advertisements as modern myths becomes significant. Myths are often not total falsehoods or delusions, but partial truths that “accentuate particular versions of reality and marginalize or omit others” (McKay, 2004: 83). Accordingly, “myths depoliticize social relations by ignoring the vested interests involved in struggles over whose stories become ascendant in a given culture” (McKay, 2004: 83).

The problem with Nike’s campaign is thus not the fact that Semenya got recognition, but the myriad of factors that this ‘just do it’ narrative omits. If succeeding within a capitalist structure is simply a matter of individuals working hard, then the people who fail to succeed have no one to blame but themselves. This ignores institutionalised classism, racism and sexism (McKay, 2004: 88). Just as notions of ‘women’s empowerment’ began to feature in Nike advertising campaigns when the company wanted to reach the ‘women’s market’, Nike has also begun to associate images of freedom, success and opportunity with athletes of colour, while omitting any indication of exploitative practices. This led Jim McKay to argue that contemporary sports advertising discourses “exemplify the capacity of the media to mythologize relations of exploitation, and construct ideologies of enlightened racism and celebrity feminism” (McKay, 2004: 93).

Caster Semenya is not only famous for her athletic capabilities, but also for the (highly publicised) debates about her intersexuality. In the Nike video, she touches on the subject by stating “I know I look like a boy, so what?” (Nike, 2019). A discussion about sexuality and sport as well as the implications of intersexuality for notions of a gender dichotomy falls beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I want to draw attention to the fact that Semenya’s ‘masculine’ traits are presented as acceptable. This is seemingly in contrast to the company’s earlier insistence that the women in their campaigns should not be ‘too fit’ (read ‘too muscular’) since they would no longer be pretty and, assumedly, too threatening.

The first possible explanation for this change over time is the fact that Nike’s advertisers are acutely aware of feminist critiques and they incorporate these critiques into their campaigns. The second possible explanation is that ‘black femininity’ is stereotypically more ‘masculine’ than ‘white femininity’ because black women in the U.S. were expected to do manual labour (Capon & Helstein, 2004: 53). Both of these explanations are supported by gendered representations in another Nike campaign featuring Serena Williams. Williams is one of Nike’s primary spokespeople and she is often presented as strong and powerful. In the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign she stated: “I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated for motherhood. But I am proving time and time again, there is no wrong way to be a woman” (Nike, 2018). In the text there is a clear incorporation of feminist critiques. However, as we shall see, there is also a variance between Nike’s presentation of black and white women.

Nike’s 2019 ‘Dream Crazier’ campaign starts with an image of a crying white woman, although the advertisement also features a feminist-inspired narration by Williams (Nike, 2019). Nike’s preceding ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign in 2018 (narrated by  Colin Kaepernick) included a snippet with Alicia Woollcott, an American teenager who played linebacker and was named homecoming queen during her high school senior year. The advertisement asserted: “Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker, do both” (Nike, 2018). This advertisement seems to validate a critique Barbara Lippert wrote of Nike ads in 2001. Lippert took issue with the “general, red-blooded, upbeat, you-go-girl message, synthesizing every post-empowerment female idea about combining strength and emotions and humanity, karate kicks and mascara” (Lippert, 2001). Significantly, black female athletes are portrayed as purely athletic, while white female athletes are portrayed as both athletic and feminine. We are told that Woollcott was a linebacker, but we are reminded that she was not ‘butch’ since she was also the homecoming queen. During the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign discussed in the previous paragraph, Williams mentioned motherhood, which could be read as a reminder that she could be both an excellent athlete and a mother and thus ‘have it all’. However, this is a relatively new addition and there is a general tendency to emphasise the pure strength of black women while white women are portrayed as strong, but still feminine.

Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz identified a similar gendered ideology in Nike campaigns and argued that women are now encouraged to “both ‘like pink’ and yet ‘still sweat” (2004: 75). Accordingly, “the dual consumption of hyperfemininity and tomboy-athleticism is no longer diametrically opposed; the New Age female athlete á la Nike is both ‘girly girl’ and ‘athletic’” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 75). As demonstrated by the discussion of Nike’s ‘Birthplace of Dreams’ campaign, not all of their campaigns conform to this ideology. In addition to the racial element, this could possibly be due to the fact that Nike still wants to protect its ‘serious sports’ image. However, other ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns do conform to this ideology. The general themes of these campaigns are a ‘you go girl!’ ethos with examples of women who ‘have it all’. In this instance, women who ‘have it all’ are depicted “carrying babies, modeling clothing, scoring baskets, and kicking goals, all the while displaying conservative, feminine, and attractive qualities and characteristics” (Giardina & Metz, 2004: 63).

Pantene’s 2019 Women’s Day campaign, ‘Braids of Strength’, presents an apt example of this ideology. The first ad in the campaign starts with the statement “By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports (at) twice the rate of boys”. The ad then follows Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, an artistic gymnast. Although the ad does comment on her strength, she is also feminine and skilfully make-uped and there are multiple shots of her hair being braided. Finally, the ad declares “stay strong, stay beautiful and stay in sports”. The emphasis is thus on the fact that women can compete in sport and stay beautiful, if they buy Pantene shampoo of course (Pantene, 2019).

The second ad in the campaign featured Nur Suryani, the Malysian shooter who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games while being 8 months pregnant. At the launch of the campaign Suryani stated: “Embracing our womanhood through sports is at times challenging, but ultimately rewarding” (cited in: Angie, 2019). Both ads thus emphasise the fact that women can stay in sport and be feminine. Suryani did not have to choose between being a mother and competing in the Olympics, she could do both. Significantly, Suryani’s athleticism did not challenge her role as a woman, but she could ‘embrace her womanhood through sports’.

While Pantene’s Women’s Day campaign at least promotes a form of empowerment and comments on women’s strength, Hyundai’s ‘campaign’ is simply an advertisement. The advertisement shows a woman’s hands being hennaed while the narration states “this is the moment I was waiting for. I can’t wait to experience this new life. Every girl dreams of this day, now it’s coming true” (Hyundai, 2019). The advertisement thus encourages the audience to believe that the woman is speaking about her wedding day. Then a Hyundai car key is placed in her hands and the audience realises that the day she has been waiting for, is the day she would receive the car. The ad is then hashtagged ‘I_Can’. The hashtag therefore follows the individualised ‘you go girl’ notion of ‘women’s empowerment’ while the advertisement suggests that this is achievable through buying a new car. The advertisement also evokes the ‘traditional’ idea that women are supposed to dream of marriage and suggests that ‘empowered women’ rather dream of participating in consumer economies.

Even Barbie (a subsidiary of the American toy company Mattel Inc.) launched an ‘empowerment’ campaign, ‘Did You Know’ #Barbie #MoreRoleModels. The brand has  encountered widespread feminist criticism because of its representation of notions of beauty, body image and race, amongst other issues. In response, Barbie has been trying to reinvent its image and has been presenting its princesses as more independent than their Disney counterparts. The brand has released 14 feature-length films since 2001 in which Barbie refuses to marry a prince and prefers studying science to attending balls (Orr, 2009: 10). In concurrence with this theme, Barbie’s 2018 campaign shows a range of young, effeminate girls, each saying a phrase of the following: “We really need more female scientists, more coders, more civil engineers. Can you believe most head chefs are men? Seriously?[8]… If girls can’t see women doing these jobs, how will we know we can?” Subsequently, the ad declares

“Because imagining she can is only the beginning. Actually seeing that she can makes all the difference”. Only then do we get to the point, namely that you can inspire a feature scientist, engineer, doctor and so on by buying her a Barbie.

The Barbie campaign captures the theme of all of the campaigns: that women/girls can become empowered through owning the right shoes, shampoo, car or doll. Perhaps Barbie’s presentation of femininity is more problematic than Nike’s, but Nike’s bottom-line is still selling products. As we have seen, if Nike could sell more products by making women feel insecure about their breast shape, then their campaigns would focus on that. I find Nike’s campaigns more worrisome precisely because they appear to be so progressive and are thus more difficult to criticise. If one criticises Nike’s campaigns, it very easily comes across as if you are trying to belittle Semenya or William’s achievements, while the problem is the co-option of progressive ideals to advance capitalist interests.

Nike is not the only company that has followed this strategy. The South African activist Zuleika Patel who challenged Pretoria Girls High School’s hair policy regarding black girls’ hair in 2016, is now part of Levi’s ‘I Shape My World’ campaign.  In the campaign, Patel states that she is standing up “for girls, for women, for my people”. This might be true and Patel’s activism should not be undermined. However, Patel is shown “leading from the ground” in very stylish Levi’s apparel and the company’s ultimate aim is still to boost its sales (Levi’s, 2019). Jim McKay criticised Nike for reinscribing “an act of dissent as a funky fashion statement” (2004: 88), but this seems to be a general trend in the industry. While watching these ads, it is important to keep in mind that the brands behind them profit from racialised and patriarchal structures even if they claim to support ‘women’s empowerment’ and black activism.

Summarily, the first problematic aspect of recent Women’s Month/Day campaigns is that they subject feminism(s) to capitalist structures and motivate women to be successful within capitalism. By focussing on the fact that women can be successful within capitalism, these campaigns emphasise the importance of free will and determination. This then implies that the people who do not become successful (according to the capitalist definition of the term) simply did not work hard enough and that “ anyone who did not succeed did not deserve to succeed” (Helstein, 2003: 282). The ‘Girl Power!’ and ‘You Go Girl!’ narratives also promote self-betterment strategies that conceal economic and political power relations that place people in positions of vulnerability. As  Michael Giardina and Jennifer Metz argued, “it is the productive aspect of power circulating such discursive spaces and masking unequal power relations that, while seemingly embracing all things Girl, further contributes to the status quo rather than challenging it” (2004: 71).

This is not to say that women are only victims or that they have no agency. Instead, I am critiquing the narrow definition of ‘empowerment’, which frames it as something that can be achieved through working on the body and consuming lifestyle products. This notion of empowerment seems very far removed from the campaigns that inspired Women’s Day/Month in the first place. These campaigns aimed to challenge exploitative policies and oppressive structures. By highlighting this I am not trying to evoke nostalgia for some golden age of ‘real feminism’. As already noted, there are many contemporary feminist campaigns that challenge power and promote various forms of justice. Nonetheless, we must be weary of the corporatisation and commodification of (some) feminist ideals, which threatens neither patriarchal culture nor capitalist hegemony.

Bibliography

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Giardina, M.D. Metz, J.L. 2004. ‘Women’s sport in Nike’s America: Body politics and the corporo-empowerment of “everyday athletes”’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

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Kvidal-Røvik, T. 2018. ‘The Meaning of the Feminist T-Shirt: Social Media, Postmodern Aesthetics, and the Potential for Sociopolitical Change’. Media and Communication 6(2), pp. 210-219.

Levi’s, 2019. ‘Levi’s® | I Shape My World 2019 | Zuleika Patel | South Africa’. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUgNYlch9H4> Access: 25 July 2020.

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McDonald, M. 2004. ‘Model Behaviour? Sporting feminism and consumer culture’, in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.  

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McKay, J. 2004. ‘Enlightened racism and celebrity feminism in contemporary sports advertising discourse’,  in Sport, Culture and Advertising : Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation, Jackson, S. J. Andrews, D. L (eds.). Taylor and Francis Group, Oxon & New York.

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Footnotes

[1] There are multiple sources that provide more in depth discussions of this topic. For example Cherryl Walker’s Women and Resistance in South Africa (1991) and Julia C. Well’s We Now Demand! The History of Women’s Resistance to Pass Laws in South Africa (1993).

[2] Pantene’s 2019 ‘Braids of Strength’ campaign will be discussed as an example later in the piece. However, the company’s 2017 campaign, ‘Labels Against Women’, is another apt example. The advertisement is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luLkfXixBpM.

[3] This piece will focus specifically on ‘women’s empowerment’ campaigns because of the context of Women’s Month. However, this can also be situated within a broader trend. Here we only need to think of Gillette’s ‘The Best Men Can Be’ campaign (available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0). The campaign presents an apt example of the individualistic discourse that will be discussed subsequently by insisting that “it is only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”. Moreover, a company that has profited from  promoting images of what ‘real men’ are supposed to look like, has suddenly positioned itself as opposing ‘toxic masculinity’. Gillette is thus associating its brand with the struggle against ‘toxic masculinity’, while the company has a median gender pay gap of 30% (Frosdick, 2019).

[4] This slogan was inspired by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay with the same title. Adichie also presented a TED Talk on the topic, which is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc.

[5] Here we only need to think about the gendered sweatshop labour associated with the garment industry and the extensive environmental footprint T-shirt manufacturing (Hurst, 2017).

[6] It is important to note that there are multiple feminisms, which are shaped by particular contexts and are reflective of ingrained social configurations and patterns. ‘Neo-liberal feminism’ is thus related to a specific context within North America and Europe and the companies that promote ‘women’s empowerment’ are advertising their products to upper-middle class (mostly western/white) women.

[7] For a critical discussion of these programmes please consult Maria Hengeveld’s ‘How Nike’s Neoliberal Feminism Came to Rule the Global South’, available at: <https://portside.org/2015-09-21/how-nikes-neoliberal-feminism-came-rule-global-south>

[8] Apparently women are still the ones who belong in the kitchen.

CSA&G Statement on Gender and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

On 24 July the UN’s human rights office, the OHCHR, expressed concern over reports of [Zimbabwean] “police using force to disperse and arrest nurses and health workers”, for breaching lockdown restrictions while trying to protest for better salaries and conditions of work.

It also noted a “pattern of intimidation” surrounding events in May when three female members of the main opposition party were allegedly arrested and detained for taking part in a protest during the Covid-19 lockdown. Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, alleged that after State security officials abducted them from a police station, they were tortured and sexually assaulted. They were then subsequently charged with breaking the lockdown rules and faking their abduction.

If the allegations of abduction, torture and sexual assault are true, such actions are meant to frighten and silence women and present a continuation of a culture of fear and silence that existed before the new dispensation. This is counter to the country’s attempts to give voice to women and girls and to end violence against women. It therefore amounts to a negation of all the efforts for gender sensitivity, gender equality and gender justice being made by different progressive state actors and various organisations in and outside Zimbabwe.

In addition, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and an opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, were detained and charged for calling for citizens to protest. The state authorities have claimed that the two were arrested for calling for citizens to disobey Covid-19 regulations as well as for citizens to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. However, arresting people for encouraging citizens to express themselves on corruption has raised concern. Also, in the case of Hopewell, arresting him soon after exposing corruption by top officials has been viewed as vindictive and linked to silencing citizens. As a result of these events, the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has arisen, to signify regional and global concern for the lives, dignity and rights of all Zimbabwean citizens.

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender would like to express its concern about the above alleged and related developments in Zimbabwe, especially in the context of the hope that many had in the ‘second republic.’ In particular, the alleged use of sexual assault against any citizen detained by the state is very unfortunate and a cause for great concern. Not only is this a violation of international norms and conventions, it goes to the heart of gender oppression, regarding women’s bodies as objects which can be used to express power: male power and the power of the state.

Writing in the Journal of Global Security Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, October 2018, Pages 417–430, Christopher J Einolf states that “Sexual torture and rape employ existing gender hierarchies to intensify dominance of the torturer over the victim and increase the pain, humiliation, and coercion of torture.”

When and where they occur, such sexual assaults have a number of dimensions. First, in some cases they are opportunistic criminal acts, undertaken by security personnel taking advantage of their positions of power. Secondly, some perpetrators used rape and sexual torture as methods of last resort, to force a confession. Third, interrogators use the threat of rape or rape of female relatives as a way to force male relatives to confess.

In all dimensions, such acts, where and when they occur, are an insult to human dignity and decency. While individuals might be targets of such acts, the acts also serve a symbolic purpose where they become examples of what happens to individuals and groups who might be seen as disobeying the state or state actors.

If the state has been abusive, or if state actors have abused their power, we believe the dignity and lives of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova matter. The dignity and lives of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume matter. The dignity and lives of nurses and health workers matter. The dignity and lives of all Zimbabweans matter and should be properly addressed by the authorities so as to build a better Zimbabwe. We believe that the above allegations and issues are very sensitive and that justice should be correctly served so that Zimbabwe is seen as a safe place for all.

In addition to this statement, staff of the CSA&G will be writing about their own personal experiences of violence – whether this be symbolic, normative, physical or by the state. These will be published in a short collection.

A hard life in a hard Lockdown

by Belinda Pakati

Growing up with my friends, we used to play games just to keep ourselves outdoors and enjoy the school holidays.

One of the games we used to play is Statue. One person shouted “statue” and everyone would stand still. No movement was allowed until the very same person who shouted “statue” …. shouted “go” … then everyone could move as they wished.

When the hard Lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africans were prohibited from unnecessary movement to curb the spread of the Corona virus. Many things had to be put on hold, shops became structures just standing still, taxis had to operate at a given time, people had to stand in long queues to enter grocery stores to buy essentials, the was no movement in the streets. I was taken back to those childhood years of playing Statue, but this is not fun, this is not a game, this is reality.

The reality of Lockdown is that we are always moving between “Statue” and “Go”.

This is a country that has child-headed families and orphanages that depend on donations and funding. This is a country that has issues of unemployment; people in my area survive financially by selling tomatoes on street corners and they do piece jobs to put food on the table. But now these people are prohibited from the means to survive, so that they can be safe. They have to stay at home and adhere to the rules of social distancing. For such people life under normal circumstances is difficult, during this unprecedented time they are finding it more difficult to survive.

I found myself in a situation where I had to buy a bag of 10kg Maize Meal, a pack of 5kg chicken feet and a bag of potatoes, because a family that survives by selling vegetables had run out of food and they had to ask for help. I knew the young woman from that family from when I was recruiting people to participate in data collection for research purposes.

“MmaNkati kogae agon adijo le mabone, mabanererobetsikatlala. Mogogoogola next week and Mmamogolo waka yena wa struggler since Lockdown di customer gaditeng,” she said. [“At home we do not have Maize Meal and electricity has run out. Yesterday we had nothing to eat. My grandmother is getting her social grant next week and my aunt is struggling because customers are not available due to Lockdown. Can you please help?”]

As a parent I felt helpless about this. I imagined how it could have been if my children were in a similar situation. My heart pounded with fear. I asked myself how many families out there are going through the same ordeal, who do they turn to in order to get assisted, how many people like me are able to help? This made me feel fearful of how the pandemic has forced people to change the way they survive in life. How am I going to be able to provide for my immediate family, and my extended family and friends who are sometimes dependent on me for some little help, even under normal circumstances?

This brought back memories about how young people who are unemployed (girls in particular) got involved in a lot of different things just so that they could survive a day, a month and a year of their lives. I also wondered how are they now during the lockdown maintaining their needs, how are they able to source money from their Blessers without first satisfying the Blesser’s needs (sex in an exchange for money in this instance) since their everyday lives have been channelled in a way that they do not have much freedom of movement.

Another young woman approached me recently. She was once a participant in an HIV/AIDS workshop I had facilitated back in the day, when HIV was still new to underprivileged communities, where young people were unemployed, where myths and perceptions about that pandemic had to be clarified. She asked questions regarding COVID-19 – she felt it was the same thing as HIV, and wondered if  I would be running a workshop, “because it’s a virus too”.

This made me realize that people aren’t really aware of what COVID-19 is. How do I even help them? Am I even allowed to give out information that might end up being deemed as false, ignorant or not constructive?

People have to learn how to deal with this pandemic, and I realize that I am seeing what I have seen during the years of HIV. People had to learn about it and people who were on ARV’s were given social grants in order to buy healthy food to boost their immune systems. In the time of Corona, people are still learning and still relying on grants.

There are two other things I have seen that are similar. In the early years, people who were HIV positive were isolated just like people who test positive for COVID-19 are separated from others. HIV positive people were placed in separate wards at hospitals and clinics, and some families used to put them in backrooms and hide them from people when they wanted to visit. This was driven by stigma, lack of information, misinformation and uncertainty.

A friend of a friend stopped taking their ARVs because they were tired of taking their medication in secret, so people did not ask questions. This person also said it was hard to explain to a man who was interested in a love affair that they were HIV positive. They feared rejection, they become isolated from the rest of the world, they did not socialise. They become a “statue”.

It’s the same with Covid-19: the infected person starts to panic, fear takes over their lives and they go into self-isolation or get quarantined. Although this is only for a short time, and is necessary, it is still very lonely, and the stigma around Covid is real.

Finally, people don’t always easily stick to the rules. The don’t like to self-isolate, wear masks, sanitise or give up their social lives to prevent COVID-19; and in the same way people don’t like being told about abstinence, sticking to one partner and having safer sex to prevent HIV.

I have learned that people don’t like being turned into “statues”, not then and not now.

REVIEW: A magnifying glass and a fine-tooth comb: Understanding adolescent girls’ and young women’s sexual vulnerability

By Naomi Webster (Human Rights Commission)

Fictional characters come alive, not as words in books but in our imagination as readers. A young girl who, against all odds, triumphs over adversity becomes the story we applaud because we favour a happy ending. For experts like Prof Mzi Nduna, any story of girls and young women (G&YW) must be told by critically, searching for and making visible their lived realities. To tell any story of G&YW’s lived realities is to look at the historical and conceptual context of sexual and reproductive health and to develop interventions that will ensure their full attainment of sexual and reproductive health rights.  Rooted in historical colonial and apartheid national identities, countries like South Africa continue to stunt the human potential of G&YW. Through this practice Africa’s development is hindered.

Prof Nduna’s first monograph, inspired by her life’s work to ensuring the attainment at a macro level of human rights for all G&YW, and at a micro level, dedicated to women and G&YW, is the answer with regards to how we can change the future for G&YW in South Africa and beyond.

The monograph provides an exploratory analysis of existing literature about G&YW’s sexual and reproductive health from researchers within the SADC. Within this body of literature there are notable gaps in understanding the full spectrum of the identities of G&YW. Perceptions of homogeneity lie at the root of blurring G&YW’s identity, denying different sexual orientations, different (dis)abilities, and different cultural beliefs. In addition, models used to understand G&YW’s sexual vulnerability are limited and maybe outdated. G&YW of the twenty-first century have to contend with more decisions and choices about education, social relations, sexual and reproductive health than G&YW born before the HIV/AIDS pandemic or before technology made information readily accessible.

Narratives of G&YW coming of age and emerging into womanhood were common threads in the tapestry of fiction and non-fiction books of the Palesa Book Club, of which Prof Nduna has been a member over the past decade. Fictional characters such as Margaret Cadmore in Bessie Head’s Maru, Kedibone in Pamphilia Hlapa’s A Daughter’s Legacy, Thuli Nhlapo’s mother in Color Me Yellow or Ijeoma in Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees reinforce research findings of G&YW’s vulnerability to sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Questions regarding why most G&YW, particularly those who are Black, experience negative consequences regarding sexual and reproductive health in private and public settings, and what can be done to change this reality, are at the heart of the monograph. The monograph takes these experiences and applies an analysis that answers the questions why and what can be done.

The use of objects such as a comb and a magnifying glass is instructive. Is there a difference, however, in the physical application or use of the objects (combing through and enhancing or making visible)? Prof Nduna suggests a difference. In conceptualising and designing programmatic interventions to bring about the full attainment of human rights (and more specifically, sexual and reproductive health rights), thorough examination and scrutiny is required in terms of programmatic interventions and making visible all recipients of interventions, especially those who are socially excluded because of differences in sexual orientation, class, (dis)abilities, etc. The application of these objects will result in gender -equitable interventions that move from gender-neutral to gender empowerment, and this will enable the happy ending we aspire to for all G&YW. For policy-makers and programme implementers this monograph offers an analysis framework that should be used to tell a story that is inclusive, responsive and empowering for all G&YW to attain their full human potential.

Empowered to please my man: (Post)feminist discourses in contemporary romantic comedies

by Elize Soer

As fears related to the coronavirus COVID-19 have risen, so have the number of Netflix subscribers. Countries around the world have imposed various stages of ‘lockdown’ and since more affluent people have been spending an increased amount of time at home, the American media-services provider Netflix has grown in popularity.[1] One of the most watched genres on Netflix is the ‘romantic comedy’. Although rom-coms are often dismissed as trivial, they are still widely enjoyed as ‘guilty pleasures’ (Warner, 2013: 226). Rom-coms have also received more scholarly attention over the past two decades, especially regarding their importance in depicting and constructing gender relations (Garret, 2007; Kaklamanidou, 2013). Accordingly, the following piece will discuss the representation of gender relations in recent romantic comedies released by Netflix. The piece will focus on three recent releases, namely Let it Snow (Snellin, 2019), Isn’t it Romantic (Strauss-Schulson, 2019) and The Wrong Missy (Spindel, 2020). These three films will be used as examples of broader trends in the genre and as manifestations of contemporary gender ideologies.

Firstly, it is important to define what a ‘romantic comedy’ is. Ostensibly it might be simple to identify a film as a rom-com, but the genre has actually been the subject of some debate. According to a recent straightforward definition it is a hybrid genre that encompasses romance and comedy. It is thus characterised by a narrative that focuses on a relationship and, since it is a comedy, it must feature a happy ending (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 7). What exactly constitutes a ‘happy ending’ is subjective, but the narrative focuses on romance between (often lovably eccentric) protagonists who face antagonism, which leads to comic situations, and then the eventual reconstitution of the relationship (Garret, 2007: 97). It is important to note that many genre theorists have argued that “genres are not defined by a feature that makes all films of a certain type fundamentally similar; rather they are produced by the discourse through which films are understood,” (Warner, 2013: 224). However, for the purpose of this piece, I will employ the straightforward definition since I chose the films based on a search of ‘popular romantic comedies’.

Film genres have become organised into a cultural hierarchy, which views ‘feminine genres’ such as the rom-com as less culturally legitimate than, for example, film noir (Warner, 2013: 225). Distinctions between films are often gendered. Roms-coms have a lower cultural status because they are associated with ‘feminine’ and thus ‘trivial’ themes such as relationships, romance and love.[2] This link is evident in the classification of rom-coms as ‘chick flicks’.[3] When ‘female’ genres are classified separately it creates the impression that they are a deviation from the standard, which is then presumably masculine (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 10).

This divide is further perpetuated by (relatively) new rom-com subgenres such as the ‘bromance’ and the ‘homme-com’, which focuses on the same themes but follows a male protagonist. Prominent examples include The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Apatow, 2005), The Heartbreak Kid (Farrelly & Farrelly, 2007) and 50 First Dates (Segal, 2004). The Wrong Missy, which will be discussed in more detail later, also falls under this category. John Alberti argued that the emergence of these subcategories demonstrates that the marketing of rom-coms to predominately female viewers “resulted not from any essential qualities of male viewers that prevented them from connecting emotionally with romantic comedies but from an ongoing crisis involving the construction of masculinity within the genre.” (Alberti, 2013: 161). This point will be reinforced by the discussion of The Wrong Missy, which presented an ‘empowered’ female character as threatening and emasculating.

Not only is the genre itself gendered, but the focus on relationships and the performance of each character’s gender as a narrative point makes rom-coms particularly interesting from a gender-studies perspective. Moreover, as Amanda Rebekah Roskelley noted, “we often take our cues on appropriate social behavior from examples found on television and in the movies,” (Roskelley, 2016: 74). We thus emulate the gendered performances of characters we see on screen while socio-cultural contexts and historical events influence the media produced. The genre has been significant in mediating changes in the norms of sexual behaviour, courtship rituals and the function of marriage. The ideological changes presented in various historical cycles of the rom-com therefore present “a particularly rich source of inquiry regarding these issues, highlighting the way in which the specific rules and conventions which comprise the discourse of heterosexual coupledom have been articulated in different cultural contexts,” (Garret, 2007: 96). The films that will be discussed in this piece represent a new group of rom-coms that form part of ongoing dialogues about romantic and sexual relationship and they can lend insight into the world of gender politics (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 2)

As mentioned, my choice of films was based on a simple google search of the most popular rom-coms on Netflix from 2019-2020. The three films I chose were mentioned on multiple platforms and, as I will argue, they also present pertinent examples of broader gendered ideologies. The first film I will discuss is Let It Snow, an American Christmas special directed by Luke Snellin and based on the similarly named young adult novel by Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle. The film followed a group of young people in a small American town on Christmas Eve and was comfortably clichéd. The story centred on three couples and it is significant because it is the only one of the three films considered that featured both an interracial and a same-sex couple. This is representative of the genre more broadly, which usually focuses on white heterosexual couples, with the exception of Hitch (Tennant, 2005)[4] and Set It Up (Scanlon, 2018), although the leading couple in Set It Up was still white and heterosexual.

It is not insignificant that Julie (played by Isabela Merced) and Stuart (played by Shameik Moore), the interracial couple in Let It Snow, were Latina and African-American. This is part of a general reluctance to match African-American men with white women in mainstream narratives. In Set It Up the interracial couple was an African-American man and an Asian woman and in the popular Hitch, the interracial couple was also an African-American man and a Cuban woman. As Chito Childs noted, “it is safer to pair a man of color with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white,” (cited in: Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). Childs argued that this allows filmmakers to have black male characters that are slick and savvy, but who do not directly pose a threat to white men who are, according to Hollywood narratives, interested in white women.

In Betty Kaklamanidou’s analysis of race and ethnicity in recent romantic comedies, she observed that they superficially incorporate “‘a ‘raced’ subject into the neoliberal cosmos, conforming to the promotion of colour blindness as the way to eliminate the issue of race,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 149). This observation holds true for Let It Snow. The film featured people from various ethnicities, which is a progressive step for a (relatively) conservative genre. However, the film followed the principle of colour blindness and represented a world in which racial equality had already been achieved. Although people of colour were represented, their positions were completely depoliticised. The other two rom-coms that will be discussed did not have any main characters that were people of colour[5]. However, in rom-coms that do feature people from other ethnicities, there is no mention of structural inequality.

Similar to the incorporation of race into a ‘neoliberal cosmos’, same-sex couples are incorporated into a monogamous structure. In Let It Snow the lesbian couple, Dorrie (played by Liv Hewson) and Kerry (played by Anna Akana) are united in the end and it is implied that they are a monogamous couple. It has to be noted that the obstacle to their romance was that Kerry had not ‘come out’ to her friends yet and she did not want them to know that she was attracted to Dorrie. To an extent, the film did thus consider some of the difficulties and personal struggles faced by sexually diverse people who are afraid of being ostracised. However, the two characters appeared feminine and their gender performances did not challenge constructions of masculinity and femininity.

During the last part of the film, Dorrie and Kerry kissed in front of Kerry’s cheerleader friends and the friends applauded the union. This unanimous acceptance stood in contrast to the characterisation of the cheerleader squad throughout the film and definitely presented an oversimplification of people’s reactions to sexually diverse people. The film suggested that the obstacle to Dorrie and Kerry’s romance was Kerry’s reluctance to ‘come out’ and be true to herself. When she overcame this fear, society was supportive of her choice. This representation completely erased the discrimination and social scrutinity that sexually diverse people face and, as with racial differences, everyone was presented as equal in a world where discrimination and structural inequality were things of the past.

The last and (arguably) main couple in Let It Snow was Angie/The Duke (played by Kiernan Shipka) and Tobin (played by Mitchell Hope) who were best friends at the start of the film. We find out later that Angie was nicknamed ‘The Duke’ because she was “always one of the boys”. Tobin gave her the nickname because he thought she should be distinguished for her masculine qualities. In many ways, Angie was a younger version of the classic ‘cool girl’ trope. The ‘cool girl’ has become a stock character in male-authored literature and movies. A typical example of the trope is Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox) in the live-action Transformers films. However, the trope is also prevalent in rom-coms, as demonstrated by Andie Anderson’s ‘real’ character in How to lose a Guy in 10 Days (Petrie, 2003) and Mary in There’s Something About Mary (Farrelly & Farrelly, 1998).

The general characteristics of this trope is that she is ‘one of the guys’, meaning that she is passionate about cars, sports or other stereotypically masculine activities. She is also generally fun-loving, uninhibited and raunchy. She enjoys junk-food and beer, but she is, above all else, conventionally attractive. She is constructed in contrast to other women who are presented as overly feminine and apparently ‘clingy’ or ‘needy’. There are often explicit references to her food choices since she must remain ‘effortlessly hot’ while other women are then portrayed as overly concerned with their dietary choices. The trope has become so popular that the American author Gillian Flynn commented on it in her psychological thriller Gone Girl, which was also adapted into a film in 2014. A (now famous) passage from Flynn’s novel remarked:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl,” (Flynn, 2014: 226).

Angie was less raunchy than the 20-something cool girl because of her age, but she shared many other characteristics with the trope. She was interested in sports and beer and was conventionally attractive[6]. Most significantly, she was repeatedly lauded for being ‘not like other girls’, as demonstrated by the reasoning behind her nickname, The Duke. I want to stress that the problem is not the fact that a female character was interested in ‘masculine’ activities, but that women who are interested in these activities are seen as exceptions. Firstly, this perpetuates a gender dichotomy because ‘other girls’ are portrayed as overly feminine caricatures. Moreover, it praises masculinity above characteristics that are deemed to be feminine and thus less significant. In fact, the cool girl is often used to demean other characters who are portrayed as more feminine.

The developing romance between Angie and Tobin is also significant in relation to constructions of masculinity. Throughout the story, Tobin was portrayed in relation to Angie’s other love interest, JP (played by Matthew Noszka). Three versions of masculinity were present in the story: Tobin’s, JP’s and a kind of ‘toxic masculinity’ evinced by the antagonists, the Reston brothers. Chad and Pete Reston presented a violent hyper-masculinity based on physical strength. They also used gendered slurs to insult other characters and teased Tobin for driving a “pussy wagon”. This type of masculinity was presented in a negative light and the film thus shunned toxic masculinity.

JP was depicted as ‘the perfect guy’ and was a good example of the ideal masculinity in contemporary popular culture. He was conventionally attractive and demonstrated his physical capabilities early in the film when he beat Tobin in a sporting contest. He also mentioned that he spent his holiday building schools in Kenya and that he practiced a type of meditation that was “great for martial arts training”. This participation in New-Age-inspired exercises such as yoga formed part of what Benjamin Brabon referred to as ‘the sensitive new man’. In Brabon’s analysis of masculinity in contemporary romantic comedies, particularly Failure to Launch (2006), he argued that ‘sensitive new man’ characteristics were often combined with more ‘traditionally masculine’ characteristics such as a daredevilish love of fun (Brabon, 2013: 122). In Let it Snow, as is in other new romantic comedies, this enlightened kind of masculinity was pitted against pure strength and aggression. As demonstrated by the attributes of the Reston brothers, “those traits traditionally lauded in men of the past are given to antagonists and punished,” (Roskelley, 2016: 73).

Although JP is portrayed as the ideal, he did not ultimately win the heart of the heroine. Throughout the film it was made clear that Tobin had less physical prowess than JP  and that he was not as ‘enlightened’. In fact, he embarrassed himself multiple times and a large part of the narrative focused on his continuously bleeding nipple, which he got from cutting himself while trying to trim his nipple hair. Tobin’s musical talent was highlighted and it was made apparent (in a somewhat awkward musical number) that he and Angie shared a musical connection. The fact that many of Tobin’s flaws were accentuated gives us insight into the factors that were presented as valuable in a relationship, predominantly, friendship. As we shall see, this is a widespread theme and it was also present in Isn’t It Romantic. Perfection was thus shunned and even mocked, while friendship and shared experiences were valued.

Another interesting element that Let It Snow shared with Isn’t It Romantic was that men (or a man) were portrayed as better feminists than women. In an exemplary scene from Let It Snow, Angie, Tobin and JP were fleeing from the Reston brothers after they had stolen the brothers’ beer-keg and the car they had been driving, notably named Carla, died. Angie and Tobin then started speaking to the car in an attempt to encourage it to restart. Angie exclaimed “come on Carla, don’t be a little bitch” and Tobin followed up with “work that ass like I know you can”. In response, the enlightened JP commented “I know it’s a car, but I’m also a feminist”. JP was thus depicted as a ‘better feminist’ than Angie and the way in which the scene was contextualised portrayed feminism as something to be mocked or something annoying that spoiled other people’s jokes.[7]

Similarly, in Isn’t It Romantic, the female protagonist Natalie (played by Rebel Wilson) and her office friend Whitney (played by Betty Gilpin) commented on the physical attractiveness of Blake (played by Liam Hemsworth) only to be corrected by the male protagonist Josh (played by Adam Devine), who stated “please don’t objectify the men in this office, I won’t stand for it”. In this instance, feminism was taken into account in a joking way. In both movies there was a clear recognition of feminist issues, but also an implied understanding that they should not be taken too seriously. This attitude forms part of a general (post)feminist sentiment that has shaped popular media productions since the 1990s, typified by the dominance of ‘Girl power’ rhetoric in consumer culture (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 3).

The concepts ‘post-feminism’, referring to a historical period, and ‘postfeminism’, referring to a cultural sensibility, have been the subject of much debate. I use the term (post)feminism to refer to a popular cultural sensibility that can coexist with feminism. This sensibility is characterised by a celebration of the power of the individual that implies that the socio-economic constraints faced by women and girls have become inconsequential. In Angela McRobbie’s canonical thesis statement on the topic she argued that “postfeminism positively draws on and invokes feminism as that which can be taken into account, to suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole repertoire of new meanings, which emphasize that it is no longer needed, that it is a spent force,” (McRobbie, 2009:12). As demonstrated by the two extracts discussed above, (post)feminist discourses do not explicitly reject feminist politics, but imply that feminism has been successful and thus superceded (Bowler, 2013: 189).

Within (post)feminist discourses, women are positioned as empowered subjects “in ways that are almost always connected to consumption and feminine physical appearance,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 7). There is an emphasis on women’s financial autonomy, but instead of contextualising this within a climate of social responsibility, it conforms to the individualist goals of neoliberal ideology (Moya: 2013: 15). Women are encouraged to attain success materially and ‘express themselves’ through commodity consumption while maintaining a female identity. The image created by (post)feminist discourses is a “new autonomous and independent woman who seeks personal gratification and self-development,” (Moya: 2013: 16). The emphasis on choice and individual agency often encourages the female subject to ‘have it all’, including job aspirations and material success, a rewarding home life and a belief in independence and the pleasures of feminine adornment (Brabon, 2013: 128).

Accordingly, (post)feminist discourses do not encourage women to pursue their careers at the expense of (heterosexual) romance. In fact, women are required to be skilled in a variety of sexual practices and a performance of confident sexual agency is seen as empowering (Farrimond, 2013: 51)[8]. This is not problematic because of the emphasis on sexual agency, but because sexual agency is presented as a way to please men. This is exemplified by the popular phrase ‘men like confident women’. This implies that women should be confident in order to please men. Moreover, the demand for women’s domestic expertise has not receded. Roberta Garrett remarked that “Women are still exhorted to excel at domestic skills, regardless of any other goals and aspirations they might want to nurture,” (Garret, 2007: 204). In fact, there has been a boom in magazines, books and television programmes dedicated to fashion, cookery, home decoration, makeovers and mothering during the last decade. Accordingly, women are constructed as having the personal choice and agency to become ‘domestic goddesses’ (Garret, 2007: 204-205).

In light of the earlier discussion of race and same-sex couples in rom-coms, it seems even more pertinent to note that “postfeminist discourse has little to say to the Hollywood consumer who is not a young, white, heterosexual, middle class woman,” (Gwynne & Muller, 2013: 4). In fact, when people of other ehtnic groups are included in mainstream Hollywood narratives, their function is often to contribute to the spiritual enlightenment of white characters. A clear example of the ways in which these discourses function together was Eat Pray Love (Murphy, 2010). The film is focused on the individual agency of a white, heterosexual, middle class woman who encounters other cultures in order to enhance her knowledge of her ‘true self’.

A very intriguing aspect of Isn’t It Romantic was the film’s critique of a similar discourse in relation to the ‘gay sidekick’. The protagonist of the film, Natalie, continuously critiqued the ‘gay sidekick’ trope because the character presented gay men as (necessarily) overly-effeminate and as having no other purpose than to support the female protagonist. While discussing rom-coms with her friend Whitney, Natalie listed problematic aspects of rom-coms, including “the cliché gay best friend whose sole purpose is to help the hot chick”. Later in the film, when her neighbour Donny transformed into a hyper-effeminate gay sidekick in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life, she commented that “my neighbour Donny is setting gay rights back 100 years”. The film thus used the trope, but commented on it critically throughout, which in turn made it seem more acceptable.

Natalie’s comments on the ‘gay sidekick’ trope were not an exception. Throughout the film, she critiqued typical rom-com conventions while the film followed these conventions almost precisely. During the same conversation with Whitney, she stated “this movie ends like all stupid rom-coms do. The girl gets the guy and then finally that makes her happy”. According to Natalie, the problem with this is that “she should be happy with other things in her life. Like her great career that she’s worked hard for”. Although this might be true in principle, the film went to great lengths to demonstrate that Natalie was not happy with her life without love. This was demonstrated by her remarks about her “dull ordinary life”. Not only did her career not make her happy, but from the start of the film she needed to male protagonist, Josh, to boost her very low self-esteem. ‘Wokeness’[9] was therefore invoked and, as we shall see, the film alluded to important debates, but the status-quo ultimately remained unchallenged.

Accordingly, Isn’t It Romantic followed many of the principles associated with (post)feminism. Firstly, there was a strong ‘empowerment’ discourse which celebrated “depictions of white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s success as markers of all women’s supposed success,” (Moya: 2013: 14). The film explicitly referenced feminism when Whitney turned into a nasty and competitive woman in the rom-com version of Natalie’s life. In response to Whitney’s transformation, Natalie announced “we marched together, remember? We had that sign: Girls Just Want to Have Fun- Demand Your Human Rights”. In this instance, Natalie was not necessarily referring to a march that she and Whitney participated in, but to the women’s movement more generally. Earlier in the film she also criticised “the idea that women can’t root for each other at work” and called it “just disgusting”.

Although the feminist observations were positive, the film followed a (post)feminist trajectory by defining ‘empowerment’ as individual women’s career success. Natalie’s comments about female solidarity in the workplace were also completely contradicted by her reaction to Josh’s love interest, Isabella. While looking at a poster of Isabella modelling a swimsuit, she mockingly said “I’m so sexy. I just want a man to buy me a salad”. She was also condescending towards Isabella’s career as a yoga ambassador and the film thus followed the typical structure in which two women compete with each other for the affection of a man. The fact that Isabella, the only non-white woman in the film, was hypersexualised as a bikini model with a career based on her physical attributes, is interesting in itself. This reinforced the observation that, when (post)feminism does refer to solidarity among women, it implicitly refers to solidarity among white women.

The (post)feminist ideology was also evident during the climax of the movie. Natalie ran to stop Josh and Isabella’s wedding and burst into the chapel. Her intention was to stop the wedding and declare her love for Josh after her ‘gay side-kick’ remarked “what, so the best friend you’ve always had a ton of chemistry with is the guy for you. Oh my God, who could have seen that coming except every single person ever of all time.” However, as Natalie was about to confess her love for Josh, she realised that the person she really had to love was herself. At the critical moment she exclaimed “I love me!” The message of the film was about the importance of self-love. This fits perfectly into an ideology that emphasises the liberation of the individual while completely ignoring exploitation or unequal social power. As with Let It Snow’s representation of sexual diversity, the only thing that Natalie had to do to prosper in life was find her confidence. This empowered her to attain success in a patriarchal capitalist framework, which the film was obviously oblivious to.

Moreover, after Natalie’s realisation that she ‘completes herself’ she became ‘empowered’ to choose a heterosexual romantic relationship with Josh. At the end of the film, Whitney observed that “even though you were so cynical, it seems as though you have the dream job, the guy that really likes you, the really cool best friend… it looks like you are in one of those romantic stories you hate so much”. Here I want to argue that Natalie’s cynical commentary did not contradict the structure of the conventional rom-com, but that it was precisely this commentary that made the film watchable. We can clearly see all the aspects of a conventional rom-com and the film does end with happy heterosexual coupledom for the protagonist. However, since it is assumed that the audience is now familiar with this structure,[10] the film had to critique certain elements of it so that it would not be written off as yet another soppy rom-com.

This technique has not been limited to Isn’t It Romantic, though this was the most extreme incarnation. In Let It Snow, Tobin confessed his love for Angie in the following way: “I’m in love with you… It’s not in the traditional sense of anything… I want to be with you for the rest of my life, Angie.” However, Angie then commented that “that was actually pretty traditional”. We can again see how the ironic comment at the end is exactly what makes the ‘traditional’ confession of love acceptable.

Another similarity between Isn’t It Romantic and Let It Snow was the construction of ideal masculinity and its ultimate refutation in favour of friendship. In Isn’t It Romantic, Blake was supposed to represent the ideal rom-com hero. It was made evident throughout that Blake was physically attractive and he characterised himself as “a good listener”. Throughout the film he also used New-Age pseudo-philosophical quotes like “still waters run deepest”. The construction of ideal masculinity was rich and handsome with a New Age twist. However, Blake’s flaws were his patriarchal assumptions. During the last part of the film he told Natalie “now that you’re with me, you won’t be working anymore”. He also assumed that “obviously we’ll be changing your last name” and he wanted to change her first name to Georgina. He thus did not accept Natalie ‘for who she is’. Although Blake was supposed to present ideal masculinity, he ultimately also functioned as the embodiment of toxic-masculinity in comparison to the more ‘woke’ Josh.

Isn’t It Romantic was a typical example of a (post)feminist rom-com in which the protagonist ultimately got to ‘have it all’, meaning that she could maintain her career and have a hetrosexual romantic relationship. This stands in contrast to a recently released homme-comme, The Wrong Missy,  in which Missy’s ultimate role was to enrich the life of the male protagonist, Tim Morris (played by David Spade). The basic plot of The Wrong Missy started with a blind date involving Tim and Melissa/Missy (played by Lauren Lapkus). Tim was presented as a plain guy who followed social conventions while Missy was extremely odd and borderline terrifying. She talked about sex openly, dipped her hair in wine before sucking it and carried around a knife named Sheila. The date ended disastrously. Three months later, Tim met another woman named Melissa who seemed to be his perfect match (basically a female version of himself). The second Melissa gave Tim her number and Tim invited her to accompany him to a work retreat in Hawaii. However, the first Missy showed up on the plane and it became clear that Tim invited the wrong Melissa.

In Hawaii, Missy was uninhibited and embarrassed Tim in front of his boss, Jack Winstone, and his colleagues. However, as the weekend progressed Missy helped Tim win Winstone’s favour by hypnotizing him and Tim began to develop feelings for Missy. Because of Missy, Tim beat his workplace competitor, Jess, and won a promotion. In order to get revenge, Jess revealed to Missy that she was invited by accident. Missy checked Tim’s phone and after she discovered the truth she left Hawaii. Meanwhile, the ‘right’ Melissa arrived in Hawaii, having been invited by Jess. During a lunch with the ‘right Melissa’, Tim started behaving like Missy and realised that he actually loved her. He left Hawaii, found Missy in Portland, apologised to her and declared his intention to become more like her. She forgave him, they were reunited and they presumably lived happily ever after.

The gender relations depicted in The Wrong Missy were problematic for various reasons. The most prominent reason was the fact that Missy’s sole purpose in the film was to make Tim realise that he should be more outgoing. She was a somewhat extreme version of the classic ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. Although this trope has been applied to a variety of characters and it has perhaps become overused, its trademark quality is the fact that the manic girl’s function is to transform the male protagonist (Schwyzer, 2013).[11] However, the problematic aspect that I want to discuss is how Missy was portrayed in relation to Jess, Tim’s workplace competitor.

Although Missy had a strong personality, her role was ultimately to support Tim. In contrast, Jess was competing with Tim for a promotion. Jess was presented as competitive, emasculating and ruthless and was nicknamed ‘The Barracuda’ by Tim and his male co-workers. This is no exception and there is a general tendency in rom-coms to “pathologize the career woman and turn her into a monstrous figure,” (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 28). It was thus no coincidence that the stereotypical ‘career woman’ was the antagonist in the film. However, even in films with ‘career women’ protagonists, it is made apparent that they sacrificed relationships in order to gain success in a ‘man’s world’. Here we only need to think of Margaret (Sandra Bullock) in The Proposal (Fletcher, 2009). Instead of being applauded for her perseverance and dedication, she is described as a “Type A (rhymes with) witch”.

At the start of The Proposal, Margaret was criticised for her drive and decisiveness, traits that men in business are congratulated for. However, as the film progressed and she developed a relationship with the male protagonist Andrew (played by Ryan Reynolds) the audience was exposed to her softness, sensitivity and humour. She was thus portrayed as misguided and miswanting (wanting the wrong things in life) and, once she understood the importance of heterosexual romance, it was made apparent that she was ultimately an amiable person. In contrast, Jess remained the antagonist throughout The Wrong Missy. Although she was a more dedicated worker than Tim and she was more knowledgeable in her field, she was punished because of her ‘masculine’ characteristics. The message of the film was clear: it is alright for women to have strong personalities as long as their goal is to enrich the lives of their male partners. However, it is not acceptable for them to be competitive and challenge the positions of their male colleagues.

Betty Kaklamanidou noted that the vicious caricature of the ‘evil career woman’ has been around since at least the 1980s. Moreover, the stereotype has not been limited to the rom-com genre. Harriet Hawkins noted that powerful female literary figures are often anathematised as femme fatales, vampires, unnatural monsters or superbitches (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 33). On the one hand, there are thus rom-coms that portray working women as ‘superbitches’ and, on the other hand, (post)feminist rom-coms encourage women to ‘have it all’, including successful careers. This apparent dichotomy could perhaps be explained away by simply noting that different films promote different (gendered) ideologies. After all, Isn’t It Romantic is a rom-com while The Wrong Missy is a homme-com that is more tailored to a ‘masculine’ audience. It is therefore possible that films directed at women encourage them to ‘have it all’ while films directed at men portray their ‘empowered’ female challengers as vicious and emasculating.

While keeping the rom-com/homme-com distinction in mind, I think it is also important to recognise the difference between ‘having it all’ and ‘being a career woman’. Natalie in Isn’t It Romantic still needed the male protagonist to boost her self-esteem and, although she did eventually succeed in her career, she was not competitive and did not threaten masculine power in any way. In fact, she still had to propose her ideas to a male investor to gain approval. In contrast, female characters that are independent and competitive, and thus threatening to masculine power, are presented in a negative light.[12]

In conclusion, films inform our conceptualisations of gender relations while they should also be read within their ideological and sociopolitical contexts. This piece has provided analyses of three popular contemporary rom-coms in order to gain insight into gendered constructions in popular culture. The first significant observation was the tendency of films to register the triumph of liberal feminism. This was especially evident in Isn’t It Romantic, which emphasised a discourse of female self-empowerment within capitalist structures. A similar trend was visible in the depiction of race in Let It Snow. The film depicted characters from various ethnic groups. However, these characters were included in a ‘neoliberal cosmos’ where racial inequality was assumed to be something of the past. Similarly, same-sex sexuality was presented as acceptable as long as it followed the principle of monogamy. In all instances, the characters were debilitated by their own lack of self-esteem and once they gained confidence they were successful. The existence of structural inequality and patriarchal capitalism was thus completely ignored.

Another tendency in recent rom-coms is to incorporate a critique of the discourse of romantic love within a romance framework (Garret, 2007: 57). Alexia Bowler observed that “the work of the postfeminist romantic comedy disarms and depoliticizes its own feminist critique of sexual negotiations through knowingness, irony and a cosy humour, coupled with discourses surrounding personal choice.”  (Bowler, 2013: 194). In Isn’t It Romantic and other recent rom-coms such as Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and, to an extent, Let It Snow, the characters are aware of rom-com conventions and cinematic techniques that are used to manipulate audiences. They also critique these conventions while they are themselves following them. Summarily, they employ a (post)feminist knowingness and irony to discredit romantic conventions and then these critiques are subsumed within the same romantic ideologies. Instead of undermining romantic ideologies, it is precisely this ironic self-awareness that makes contemporary rom-coms watchable for an audience that is well versed in rom-com conventions.

Within a (post)feminist framework, there is also a celebration of very specific forms of female ‘empowerment’. Women are encouraged to ‘have it all’, including a successful career and a heterosexual romantic relationship. However, women are discouraged from adopting ‘masculine’ character traits such as being ‘too competitive’, lest they become ‘emasculating’. Women must also appear ‘feminine’ and engagement in consumer culture and feminine adornment activities is presented as empowering. All of these factors indicate that it is not enough to label contemporary rom-coms as simply ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’. They can be ‘progressive’ in some ways and can disrupt ‘traditional’ gender divides by featuring driven ‘career women’ as protagonists. However, we must also remain critical of the ways in which these films contain progressive discourses within monogamous, patriarchal and capitalist structures. A particularly worrisome trend is the ways in which rom-coms (and other popular media productions) invoke ‘wokeness’ to sustain these broader exploitative structures.

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Footnotes

[1] At the end of 2019, Netflix had about 167 million subscribers and generated revenues of $20.1 billion during the year. Subscriptions skyrocketed in the first quarter of 2020 and by April there were 183 million. Netflix is also popular worldwide and has subscribers from the United States (US), Canada, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and Africa (Moody, 2020).

[2] It is also possible that rom-coms have a low cultural status because they trivialise the complexity of relationships.

[3] Although rom-coms are generally marketed as feminine, males dominate behind the scenes. Only about 12% of rom-coms are directed by women (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 11). Coincidently, all of the films chosen for this piece were directed by men and I only noticed this after I had already chosen the films.

[4] For a more in-depth discussion of the racial elements in Hitch please consult ‘Romantic comedy and the ‘other’: race, ethnicity and the transcendental star’, in: Kaklamanidou, B. 2013. Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com. Taylor & Francis Group, London.

[5] Isn’t It Romantic did feature Priyanka Chopra, the Indian actress and singer. She played Isabella, the temporary love interest of one of the main characters in a fantasy world. She was a billboard model and, somewhat stereotypically, a yoga ambassador.

[6] In the book version of the story, the author (John Green) also repeatedly emphasised the fact that she ate junk-food and did not diet ‘like other girls’. She was often discussed in contrast to other hyper-feminised girls of her age, especially a group of cheerleaders (Green, Myracle, Johnson, 2008). However, Angie’s eating habits were not really mentioned in the film version.

[7] This is perhaps a humorous (though no less serious) evocation of what Sarah Ahmed labelled ‘the feminist killjoy’. The feminist killjoy is seen as getting in the way of the happiness of others by, amongst other things, not laughing at their offensive jokes (Ahmed, 2017: 37; 201)

[8] This obligation to have sexual expertise stands in contrast to earlier discourses that constructed chastity as the ultimate feminine virtue (Farrimond, 2013: 51).

[9]  ‘Woke’ is a popular term used to describe someone who is alert to injustice and social movements, especially racism and sexism.

[10] This assumption is made apparent throughout the film since it references several past rom-coms. In fact, a young version of the protagonist (Natalie) is watching Pretty Woman at the start of the film. There are also references to other popular rom-coms, including Notting Hill and 13 Going on 30, and Natalie also uses a pun (“you had me at hallo-copter”) to evoke another rom-com.

[11] The Take recently released a video that discussed the trope and some of the complexities around classifying a character as a ‘manic pixie dream girl’. The video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_gxo8l9j8s.

[12] An exception to this is the 1980 classic 9 to 5 (Higgins, 1980). The film is not a rom-com since it does not feature a romance as part of its main plot, but in my opinion this factor is a strongpoint. For an interesting discussion of the film, please consult ‘The 1980 Movie ‘9 To 5’ Is Still Depressingly Relevant For Women At Work’ (Torres, 2019).