Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.
The New F-ratings of Films in Sweden: Bringing feminist-friendly female role models to the attention of the public
Sam Grigg (Newcastle University)
Sweden, one of the greatest gender-equality countries, is imposing the use of the Bechdel test for cinema releases. Simple in nature, the test requires the fiction in question to have at least two women in it, they must talk to each other, and they must discuss something besides men. Usually employed by feminist critics who will give the rating, the test assesses how female-friendly certain fiction is.
It is unacceptable that so many popular films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pulp Fiction, The Social Network and all but one of the Harry Potter films fail the test. The Hunger Games and The Iron Lady, however, pave way for feminist approval. However, it is disconcerting that around half of films that do get awarded this rating (of an ‘A’) only do so because of discussions of babies or marriage, which is hardly progressing from gender-stereotyping.
A criticism of the Bechdel test is that writers argue they have a duty to portray life truthfully, so feel unfairly punished if they don’t pass the test due to showing real-life misogyny. Additionally, many sexist films can still pass the test, and films with all-female characters can fail, meaning that it doesn’t explain whether a film is gender-balanced.
Despite the above criticisms, the UK should declare the use and regulation of such a test; if it did, the rating should be made compulsorily published as with the British Board of Film Classification prior to release. Additionally, provisions should be included in the ratings to account for the portrayal of real life misogyny. Mainly a concern to parents, as adults would be able to watch a film knowing certain sexist issues had been amplified, parents would be enabled to explain to their children that this is the case. It would allow those who care about such issues to decide whether to watch a film. However, those adults unaware of the problem of sexism within films would be enlightened to the fact, as they would be pointed to the issues by the compulsory publication of the rating. This can only be a good thing; more of the general public will be made aware of the troubling representation of women in films so could be persuaded to act against it.
If the UK did introduce the Bechdel test to regulate films, many would not pass, but surely this will aid the continuing fight for gender equality in the UK? It will show that women do actually care about things other than just their relationship to men; women are not just objects of their male partners, but capable of their own, independent thoughts and actions.
Silenced by the Masses – Charlene White and the Poppy Debate
Vikki Lang (Durham University)
The ‘poppy debate’ reached an all-time high this year, with countless news articles, blog posts and television debates documenting the rise in people choosing to abstain from presenting this traditional symbol. Often the nub of these debates rests on the importance of respect, national pride, charity, war and peace; but not for Charlene White – for her, the root of the debate was entirely different.
Charlene White is a female black ITV news presenter who decided against wearing a poppy for personal reasons that can be found here, namely that she did not want to show a preference for one charity over the others which she supports. Yet after her broadcast, what followed was a stark illustration of inequalities within our society, and the silencing of women and ethnic minorities through the media. Charlene became a victim of a torrent of racial and sexist abuse, with Twitter and Facebook users calling her a ‘stupid stuck up bitch’ and a ‘disgraceful wrench’, and saying that ‘if our troops weren’t here then I’m sure her family would never have been allowed here’. These are just some examples of the abuse hurled in her direction. In this case, engagement with the relevant issues and intellectual debate was wholly side-tracked for racial and sexist silencing – something seen all too often in social media.
This issue is brought into stark illustration when the public reaction to White’s decision is compared to that of John Snow, a fellow C4 presenter, who grounded his refusal to wear a poppy on screen due to ‘poppy fascism.’ Was he faced with a barrage of abuse reducing him to his sex and race? No. Yet again, for the white middle class male things are entirely different. In the meantime, members of an underrepresented race or gender, whenever sticking their heads out of the sand, can expect to be reduced to that which differentiates them and, consequently, are silenced by the masses.
India: Working Towards Changing Attitudes to Gender Bias
Kirsty McCurdy (Newcastle University)
Recently, the United Nations has created its first ever study measuring gender inequality and women’s environment around the world. The index, known as EGI (the Environment and Gender Index), ranks 72 counties in terms of how the countries translate gender and environment mandates into national policy. India has one of the worst gender differentials in child mortality of any country, ranking 132 out of 148 nations.
It is not surprising, given worldwide attention to the fatal rape case in Delhi, that India is among one of the weakest performers on this index. Indeed, gender bias is seemingly rife in certain areas, as the British medical journal Lancet reported that estimated 12million female foetuses were aborted in the past three decades. The practice happens for a number of reasons: boys are seen as being good luck, and many families find that bearing a girl will impose a financial burden upon the family. This is due to the tradition of dowry, a tradition that is actually illegal but is still widely practiced across India. In dowry, when a woman has an arranged marriage, monetarial assets or property from the bride’s family are given to the groom as a kind of ‘bridal gift.’ Consequently, some families believe it is financially advantageous to bear a boy instead.
There still exists a law in Goa that allows men to marry a second wife if there is no son from the first marriage. Indeed, Kirti Singh, a lawyer and author of the UN study entitled ‘The Law and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check’, stated that a lack of political will means many progressive laws are not enforced. Other laws are blatantly discriminatory and encourage the view that a male child is more valuable.
However, there have been initiatives that have sought to change attitudes towards woman and female babies. In regard to women, in the Southern State of Kerala, ‘She-Taxi’s’ have been set up, to allow women only to conduct their own taxi businesses, to make it safer for women to travel around as well. It is a commendable scheme, hoping to empower woman and promote entrepreneurship. Perhaps this will slowly change society’s view that women are not as valuable as men, as this scheme shows they are capable of working equally as hard as men in society.
Lastly, there has also been a charity that has endeavoured to change negative attitudes towards having female babies. The initiative involves compiling boxes with various presents for a new-born baby, visiting families in hospitals where the mother has just given birth to a new-born baby girl and giving these gifts to the family and congratulating them on their new-born baby girl. This is a really charming idea of how to spread the love for newly-born girls. Hopefully, this attitude to love girls just as equally as boys will spread throughout India and gender bias will no longer be an issue. Here is a video of the charity in action.
Scotland Moves Towards Same-sex Marriage
Lucy Armstrong (Durham University)
Members of the Scottish Parliament have finally approved, in principle at least, legislation to introduce same-sex marriage into Scotland. Currently, same-sex couples can enter into civil partnerships, but it is hoped that same sex marriages may become reality as early as the start of 2015 if the legislation is passed. This promising move, through the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, would see Scotland catching up to England and Wales’ Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
The Bill passed the first hurdle in Parliament by 98 votes to 15 with 5 abstentions. The Bill highlights the importance of equality and respect, and as Health Secretary Alex Neil states it ‘will create a more tolerant society in Scotland’.
Of course, in a heteronormative society, there are critics of the proposal – like SNP MSP John Mason who continue to assert ‘that marriage is between a man and a woman’. Furthermore, Labour MSP Elaine Smith argued that it failed to protect freedom of speech for those who were against gay marriage, and she even went on to suggest that some voters may have voted ‘yes’ for fear of being branded homophobic.
Whatever the views of the MSPs, this is certainly a step in the right direction for equal rights in a pluralist, liberal society. It is not always appropriate to conform to change, but on this occasion, the Scottish Parliament have portrayed their opposition to discrimination with their inclusionary legislation. In stark contrast to the current regimes of Russia in relation to gay rights, Green MSP Patrick Harvie said the Bill was a ‘proud achievement’ for Scotland.
Female Genital Mutilation in the UK
Lauren Posada (Durham University)
A report – Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK – has recently been launched at the House of Commons by the Royal Colleges of Midwifery, Nursing and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Unite union and Equality now. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a practice originating in Africa and the Middle East. In the UK, typically little is heard about the practice of FGM, with much of the public assuming that it never happens in the UK. However reports show that in England and Wales more than 66,000 women are living with the consequences of FGM and more than 24,000 girls are currently at risk. In her chilling documentary, The Cruel Cut, Leyla Hussein argues that the UK does not have strict enough laws, and effective enough implementation of law and policies, to prevent this practice. She states that her colleagues in Europe view the UK as a ‘soft touch’, with many girls being sent over to the UK to be cut. Writing for the Guardian Hussein argues that FGM is an issue of child abuse and needs to be stopped. Speaking to the Guardian, Janet Fyle, one of the report’s authors, agrees with Hussein stating that ‘just as it is inconceivable that a health worker would not report evidence of child abuse to the police, it should be equally important to report evidence of FGM.’
The report calls for a government–funded awareness strategy to increase society’s knowledge of FGM. Hussein argues that FGM should be given the same publicity as HIV and knife crime. Indeed in her documentary, Hussein tackles Somali communities in a bid to change their opinion of FGM, hoping that young girls will be spared from being ‘cut’. Another key point of the report is about holding frontline professionals accountable and empowering them to act to prevent FGM. The report argues that health workers should identify girls at risk of FGM and treat them as if they were at risk of child abuse.
Although the report can be taken as a positive step to prohibiting FGM, one wonders why it has taken this long for the issue to be dealt with. Perhaps it is due to the fact that FGM is a cultural taboo and rarely spoken about, and there may be a lack of public knowledge of the practice and the gravity of harm that FGM can cause girls and women. Not only is the procedure ‘vile’, in Hussein’s words, but the consequences can be extensive, with some women being left infertile. Hussein calls us to stop ‘closing our ears and pretending it’s not happening’ and instead confront the issue with the urgency needed.