The Weinstein scandals have found me reading the book ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman. The book explores a world via an intriguing twist – the idea that women are the physically powerful gender. By turning the tables, she turns the world upside down. In ‘Power’, women have discovered an innate power, “their skein”, which provides them with supernatural physical powers. Men are now the physically inferior, weaker gender. She plays throughout the book with familiar life scripts but instead women are the perpetrators and men are victims.
It is not my aim to provide a critical overview of the book, but I would like to stay with the fact that even though Alderman creatively plays with the power game, she sustains the view that the world will carry on being a world of conflict and war, even when women are ruling. Women become the perpetrators who abuse, kill, rape and maltreat men. The book begins with females using their newfound supremacy to revolutionise how society is organised; emotions are running high and revenge after the years of oppression is a powerful plot engine. Interestingly, in Alderman’s imagination, women are no less violent or less sexually charged than men when they are given the power and the freedom to pursue their ends. I believe this idea introduces a very different theoretical conversation about feminism and abuse of power. Alderman is asking us to evaluate how women would actually react if one day they woke up with male entitlement and privilege? Would they be corrupted by their power or carry on fulfilling their nurturing role? Would they really change the world as it is or would they have to face in themselves traits that are historically projected into men, such as aggression and its subsequent violence?
What I think is profoundly sad about the Weinstein case is not only the legitimised abuse, but mostly the number of powerful women who were still struggling to find their voices even years after money, fame, recognition came upon them. Actually, it is not a critical stand but only a recognition of the scale of the institutionalised sexism embedded in our society. Here I would like to talk about another type of sexism which is not the external sexism enforced upon us by a patriarchal society, but instead an internal one that comes within. The one inside each woman who actually reduces herself and her appetites, believing herself unconsciously to be an inferior being who is there not to be difficult. The concept of ‘internal sexism’ is inspired by the work of psychoanalyst Fakhry Davids who uses the term to understand racism by introducing the term ‘internal racism’. Davids attempts to normalise racism by claiming that is a state of mind we all carry within us. He describes it as a defence system against acute, primitive anxieties. Davids approaches the matter by exploring early infantile anxieties. How does the infant manage the experience of a mother who is present and attuned to her child’s needs and a mother who is absent and preoccupied with something other than the child? Following Melanie Klein’s theories, Davids argues that the infant splits and projects the bad experience of the mother to another figure i.e. the father, and is then able to maintain an intact idealised version of the mother. As the infant develops and grows, he or she escapes this terrifying state of only bad/only good and becomes able to tolerate better the reality of ambivalence, frustration and absence. Nonetheless, this early experience is never fully obliterated – it is always there within us. When the child or later on the adult must endure times of acute anxiety, we resort back to this early experience of resolving anxieties. For obvious reasons, this defensive solution finds social structures of seclusion appealing (the excluded one is all bad). And so we find in all societies how the strange or the helpless can easily become the Other and a vessel of these projections.
What becomes possibly more complex in the case of sexism is that the other was once the M-Other. Sexism involves the Mother, once adored, becoming undermined and undervalued. Boys and girls are equally susceptible to the effect of social stereotyping because as social beings they have no alternative but to adopt them. The girls make unconscious internal attacks on their femininity while boys are compelled to make unconscious attacks on the femininity of their spouses, colleagues and friends they meet throughout life. So, I make the point that the way men undermine femininity is mirrored by an unconscious part of every female mind. The attack is undercover, subtle and almost unnoticed but constantly informs a woman’s self-perception and self-value.
Hadley Freeman, in her recent article in The Guardian, “Men of Hollywood, spare us your ‘solidarity’ and actually speak up, for once in your over-privileged lives,” calls for white actors to speak up about how they get paid more than their female co-stars. The suggestion makes perfect sense to the rational mind, but if we look a bit deeper, we can see that it encrypts a message of men as saviours and subtly perpetuates the view of women in the industry as weak. It is important to clarify once more that I am only talking about women who have been established in the industry, who have wealth, recognition and respect, yet are still looking to men to be the ones who talk about equal pay, because unconsciously we women cannot shift our unconscious and internalised stereotype that we are the weak ones.
Lysistrata comes to mind, a comedy by Aristophanes, where women collectively withhold sex from men until they cease the Peloponnesian War. The comedy starts with Lysistrata saying, “There are a lot of things about us women, That sadden me, considering how men, See us as rascals” and Calonice replies, “As indeed we are”. What I am saying is that it is not how men see us but most importantly how we see ourselves. In Aristophanes’ comedy, women create a union and fight in common cause to end the war. The play ends with men and women dancing together when a woman named “Reconciliation” is introduced to the Spartans and Athenians as they are formulating a peace agreement. I think the lack of community between women in Hollywood has surprised me and made me consider again how powerful the role of an embedded internal misogyny in women really is.
Susie Orbach in her recent paper, “Misogyny on the couch: why it’s time to let psychoanalysis into politics’ illustrated this well with the following riddle: a father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital with a brain injury. Just as he’s about to be operated on the neurosurgeon says, “I can’t operate – this boy is my son!” Who is the neurosurgeon? If you are female and feeling flummoxed by this riddle, your internal misogyny is well-established! Orbach continues, ‘In 2018 we might answer that the surgeon is the other Dad. Issues of sexual orientation and parenting are no longer confined to heterosexual tramlines. But enlightened as we like to think we are today, how fast would we would say, “His mother?” How deep is the internalisation of misogyny?” In the same paper she talks about Mary Beard’s experience of hearing the female voice of a pilot making an announcement and how Beard observes herself caught up her internal sexism when she wonders whether the female pilot can do the job.
Psychoanalyst Helen Morgan in her paper ‘Between Fear and Blindness:the white therapist and black patient’ addresses matters of diversity and in particular about the experience of a black patient seeking a white therapist. The patient came to the profound realisation that she carried inside the implicit view that a white therapist would be better than a black one, thus a black therapist would be second rate and the patient wanted the best. In the same way, women are letting the job be done by a man because they unconsciously think he would be better at doing it. The debate between Trump and Hillary was rather telling as we observed the scrutiny of a woman’s capacity to do the Presidential job while Trump got away with tapes of his bragging about sexual harassment. What was very interesting was to find out was that an equal percentage of women voted for Trump (53% of white women voted for Trump).
I return to Lysistrata because the comedy conveys how we women are able to counter the shout of our internal misogyst’s voice when mens’ decision-making gets bad enough. For that internal voice really does believe that men know better – and that we – the women – are ‘rascals’ to quote Lysistrata’s friend. Observing Hillary Clinton I felt her struggle was in large part to do with not having a female President to follow in the footsteps of, for she only had male counterparts to identify with when she looked at all the portraits of former presidents. It was almost impossible to win as she had to convince people that she could function as a man even though she is a woman and in a simplistic way men went for a man and not for a replica of the latter. We thought that being equal meant being men – refusing motherhood, denying our caring role – but now we know we must make space for all the roles irrespective of gender stereotypes about who does them best if we want to build a balanced society. Men and women must work in partnership rather than alienating each other.
I conclude with an experience during a conference addressing matters of diversity and feminism. The panel that talked about feminism consisted of four women. It was really striking how in all the panels before and after them, the voice of one man was enough but on this occasion four women were needed. What followed was even more interesting because when the conversation opened to the floor, there was an unusual male silence. None of the men talked. They were being silenced. The same incident occurred when we were having a conversation with friends over dinner about the Hollywood scandals and also other professions which are very male-dominated professions. The group consisted of male and female academics but it very quickly became a female topic of conversation. There is something really disturbing in noticing that one voice needs to be silenced for the other one to be heard. Maybe the silence of men is much needed as it has preoccupied the social and cultural picture for too long but what women should not repeat are mens’ mistakes, as Alderman points out in her book. So women when we finally get the power we really want we should be really careful not to create a world of inequality and chaos.