The media storm surrounding the #MeToo campaign has been a catalyst for discussions on issues of sexual abuse, gender violence and pay inequality. In the mainstream media, feminism has moved out of the shadows and become a hot topic, triggering intense and often polarising debate.
This has not come from nowhere; the #MeToo campaign is embedded in a long history of shifting discourses on gender. Towards the end of the 20th C and at the beginning of the 21st C, gender studies academics, such as Christina Hoff Sommers, were critiquing a notion which had underpinned the analysis of many of their predecessors, that the collective identity of women can be made intelligible by their victimhood in a patriarchal system of oppression. Whilst by no means cohesive, these ‘third wave’ feminists (sometimes referred to as post-feminists) eschewed heteronormative notions of a universal womanhood and, in the vein of post-colonial and post-structural studies, rejected what they saw to be artificial categories of gender. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on the way in which gender has been constructed in recent history, with individuals being conceptualised in entrepreneurial terms, whereby they are held personally accountable for their progress, without taking account of contextual factors.
This shifting attitude towards gender, particularly the celebration of the power and agency of women, has pervaded the expectations of society. In the 1990s and early 2000s, celebrity culture promoted the idea that women should be able to take control of any given situation. Whilst this narrative can be empowering in particular contexts, for many it upholds an ideal, uncomfortably at odds with lived reality, which prevents recognition of persistent structural inequality.
Increasingly it seems that a neoliberal approach to gender is too optimistic. As Aristotle would have pointed out, character is not created out of nowhere, through an ‘authentic’, ‘autonomous’ personal decision. Character requires context, culture, education and history – and the cultivation of character is not about ‘fixing weak individuals’.
In direct contrast to an individualist neoliberal conception of gender, the #MeToo campaign embodies a collective identity politics, emphasizing the entrenched cultures which make intelligible particular experiences of women. These experiences may have previously been dismissed as an outcome of poor personal choices or a failure to take control of a situation. What the #MeToo campaign highlights is that whilst everyday sexisms need tackling with attitudinal change, this does not happen spontaneously and is a shared responsibility. Society cannot easily, as bell hooks urged, ‘let go of sexist thoughts and actions’ (2000, 9). Yet the #MeToo campaign alone is too broad to accommodate an intricate understanding of the historically and culturally contingent complexities of gender in the 21st C. It therefore risks being ostracised as a virtue-signalling endeavour of a Hollywood clique, which just replaces one sort of naïve individualism with another.
Interestingly, a more structural understanding of gender has also been adopted by discourses on the right, frequently articulated as a backlash to the #MeToo campaign. Former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon expressed his fear of the #MeToo campaign in an interview with journalist Joshua Green where he said: ‘The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo ten thousand years of recorded history.’ There is a huge (mainly male) following on YouTube for essentialist perspectives on gender, whereby the position of women in society is presented as being largely determined by the ‘natural’ difference between the genders, ordained by biology and to be protected against rampaging feminists. Psychologist, Professor Jordan B Peterson, speaks online about multi-varied analyses which indicate that the pay gap does not exist on the basis or solely on the basis of gender discrimination, but that the psychological characteristics of men and women predict positions of power. In short, traits typically associated with women, such as agreeableness, simply do not predict success, and, as these traits essentially lie in our genes, are not amenable to change.
These counter-arguments to the #MeToo campaign (and social liberalism more generally) drastically essentialise the lived experiences of gendered individuals. As Marian Young (1980) argues in Throwing Like a Girl, which debunks Erwin Straus’s studies into the effect of a ‘feminine attitude’ on comportment, the performance of gender is both situated and fluid. Whilst there are real measurable differences in the comportment of men and women (women often approach the same tasks as men with greater timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy), Young argues that this is due to a lack of trust women have in their bodies and greater self-consciousness, something that is learnt by habituation in a misogynistic society. It is thus about historically contingent nurture, rather than static nature.
The same argument can be articulated for measured differences in psychology. According to the Hewlett Packard Report, men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them (Mohr, 2014). Across the professions that the Jubilee Centre have studied, it has also been discovered that there are statistically significant differences in male and female approaches to ethical decision-making (see Character Education in UK Schools), most notably, females tend to consistently outperform their male peers in moral dilemma tests.
With this in mind, perhaps a greater interdisciplinary understanding of how gendered individuals develop their character might help move the debate forward. This is incredibly pertinent considering the IFS study, published last month, which indicates that high achieving girls are deterred from taking physics and maths at A-level and in higher education as a result of ‘low confidence’ and ‘boys’ dominance in classrooms’. In order to promote a debate which neither plays down structural barriers to gender equality, nor falls into the trap of patronising or denying individuals agency, this should be informed by an appreciation of the systems of oppression which connect and intersect vastly different scales of inequality. The forthcoming research associated with the Practical Wisdom and Professional Practice project, which highlights the effect of gender on professional character, could be a great place to start.
Charlotte Rennie is Research Officer at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
Cassidy, R. Cattan, A., Crawford, C. and Dytham, S. (2018) How can we increase girls’ uptake of maths and physics A-level? Institute for Fiscal Studies [online] Available here: https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/13277 [Accessed: 14/09/2018]
hooks, b., 2000. Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. London: Pluto Press.
Mohr, T.S., 2014. Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. Harvard Business Review, 25.
Sommers, C.H., 1995. Who Stole Feminism? How women have betrayed women. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Young, I.M., 1980. Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment motility and spatiality. Human Studies, 3(1), pp.137-156.