Dangerous Women

By Jo Shaw, Ben Fletcher-Watson and Abrisham Ahmadzadeh

Fifty reflections on women, power and identity

What does it mean to be a truly dangerous woman, in this dangerous world? - Bidisha

We live in a dangerous world, and that danger comes from male violence. It is hardly radical to point this out, as it’s a fact: governments know it, the police know it, crime reporters know it, judges know it and victim support workers know it. Statistically, this violence is perpetrated by men and boys against women, girls, other men and other boys. Statistically, it is males who rape, traffic, terrorise, buy and sell and rent, harass, exploit, use and abuse females and sometimes other males. Statistically, it is men who physically beat and brutalise women and other men.

This abuse is supported by an inescapable network of macho social and cultural misogyny in which male authority figures with money and power head up every area, be it politics or the arts, finance or the charity sector, medicine or academia, law or engineering. Meanwhile, but for some few exceptions, women are kept in the lower echelons of each organisation and often paid less for the same work as men, discriminated against, sexually harassed, dismissed through ageism, punished for becoming mothers and overlooked for promotions.

In a patriarchal society like this, women are punished through comparison with negative stereotypes, impossible ideals and hypocritical double standards which sexist men invent and reinforce among themselves to ensure their own dominance (although many women have absorbed and internalised the same values): a woman is shrill while her male counterpart is assertive; a friendly woman is a tease who deserves what is done to her by any men who abuse her while a friendly man has easy charm; a child-free woman is a selfish careerist while a new mother is a matronly sap who can’t be trusted to concentrate at work, whereas a man with kids is a ‘family man’ even if he does no actual parenting and leaves the childcare labour to the mother or a female nanny.

And so on.

In culture and in the mass media women are ignored, sidelined or under-represented as writers, directors, artists, experts, architects, designers, photographers, composers, conductors, panel speakers, whatever it is. If it involves money, influence, self-expression, the power to influence images and narratives, to create great spectacles and show the world our creative vision, we are kept out, whether that’s making films or getting on best-of lists or prize shortlists or receiving big commissions and exciting work trips as DJs, as scientists, as academics, as poets, or whatever it might be. Those who are not ‘lucky’ to be treated like this in full-time, middle class professional employment are struggling as exploited workers in ‘flexible’ jobs which offer no pension, no stability, no progression and no safeguards.

At the same time, in the home, many men still use women’s labour as cleaners, cooks, child-raisers, sexual service providers, family admin organisers and parent-carers. And yet providing all of these free services for a man who does far less than 50% of all the work does not mean that a woman will not be beaten, raped, bullied, controlled, deceived or betrayed by him; two women a week are killed by their male partner or ex-partner. And when a woman is abused, and she speaks about it, she will be told she is lying.

Women are cornered and trapped in their lives by severe funding cuts which have affected domestic violence, rape, legal aid, housing, early years education and elderly care charities. Women are bearing the brunt of a macho government’s sadistic ‘austerity’, where those at the bottom of society – always women, and in particular women of colour – are punished again and again and sometimes kept in abusive situations through lack of a way out, because the Chancellor doesn’t want to tax rich white chaps like himself.

Yet it is not we who are the liars. Narratives and images about women in mass culture from films to music videos to adverts do not derive from reality but are chock full of malicious lies and patronising, belittling insults. So often, the stories we ingest as part of our daily entertainment are full of slanders against women, and give us a pantheon of females who represent everything that sexist men really think about us. At the very best we can hope to be sexually objectified as a ‘hot’ body to be used and then discarded or a crying and desperate kidnap victim to be saved. We can be turned into pornography and masturbated over, or rented and used by the hour to give a man sexual gratification and a feeling of power and control. We can be patronised as an infantile and endlessly supportive love interest or pityingly leered over as a murdered prostitute on a mortuary slab. There is the useless frump, the nagging wife, the interfering mother in law, the hard-faced police detective, the petty fusspot, the pathetic yet predatory ‘cougar’. We are either stupid bimbos to be used then ignored or scheming, dried-up witches to be mocked then ignored.

When our very youthful beauty fades the true hatred and derision felt for us is revealed.

And at the very worst, we are represented as dangerous women who will destroy the world out of our irrational malice if we are not stopped. The succubus, the ugly hag, the sinister crone, the cold bitch who can’t take a joke, the demonic castrator, the shrill feminist who overreacts to every tiny thing, the dried-up spinster aunt, the baby-hungry obsessed woman, the demanding high-maintenance girlfriend, the shallow high-maintenance wife, the ‘psycho’ ex-wife, the scheming harridan, the un-maternal career woman ‘ballbreaker’, the embittered former beauty queen, the vengeful stalker who’s mad, sad and bad and lives to emasculate men.

These images bleed out of the arts and culture and are used to judge and attack all women in public life, especially in politics and business leadership. Women who aim for power of any kind, in any area, are represented as ravenously ambitious, selfish, inhuman witches who want to take something away from men. Actually forget about trying to get power; when a woman wants justice, basic justice in law, against a man who has harmed her, and is strong enough to go to the police and even through a court to get it, it is she who is put on trial, said to be lying, psychologically exposed, cross-examined and destroyed in front of strangers.

There are many dangers for a woman who dares to claim more than what is offered to her. More than a life of drudgery and abuse, of being objectified or belittled or ignored or exploited or undermined or treated as stupid. More than a world in which women are only tolerated when we can be used, and where we encounter verbal violence, structural violence or physical violence when we test the limits set down for us.

But what does it mean to be a truly dangerous woman, in this dangerous world? Forget about film and TV myths for a moment. In a woman-hating, woman-exploiting, woman-abusing, perpetrator-excusing world, a dangerous woman is one who points out the obvious. A dangerous woman is a woman who is made, like all of us, to go through the gauntlet of misogyny all day every day, who sees perpetrators lionised as pillars of society and victims tortured and punished, and like the little boy in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, shouts out that something isn’t quite right and wonders why everyone is colluding with the illusion. The sheer amount of slander directed at women who do this is simply a way of deflecting attention from the obvious truth about the perpetrators of virtually all the violence and abuse in the world. The slander and resistance are themselves a form of abuse.

You wouldn’t think that words alone could make you a dangerous woman.

In a militarised, violent, capitalistic world individuals are considered dangerous if they have ammunition of a literal or metaphorical kind: if they are carrying a gun or have a lot of economic or political power, or if they have a record of hurting others. Yet if I were to put this article up on my own site I would immediately receive emails and Tweets from abusive men enraged by my claims about abusive men. I am only pointing out what is obvious and ubiquitous and endemic – what is, indeed, on the front pages of news sites every single day – and yet simply to say it causes them such blistering panic that they immediately lose their minds and confirm exactly what I am saying. I have become, in their eyes, a dangerous woman who must be shut up and hounded out, just for using language to express the truth….

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