Reprogramming your mind


Image: Tess Brooks
Image: Tess Brooks

On a hot spring morning in the beginning of September, New Zealand writer Kate De Goldi speaks at the State Library of Queensland about her 25-year-old daughter’s progression in the world of construction and her recent nomination for New Zealand’s Young Retailer of the Year.

“She had to write out a punishing form talking about what she does, the innovations she’s brought in [to the company], and she had to state her one year goals and her five year goals,” De Goldi explains.

“I was amazed and pleased and proud and at the end, when it came to the five year goals, she said she wanted to start a ‘women in building’ organisation and then she said ‘does that sound too feminist?’” There is an audible and collective gasp in the auditorium.

Allow me to explain – De Goldi, along with fellow writers Dawn Barker, Monica Dux and Dale Spender, spoke at an event called ‘The F Word’ as part of the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. As you may have already guessed, this ‘F word’ is feminism.

I attended the talk in the hope that it would provide contextual insight into my latest personal revelation – that I am going to have to ‘unlearn’ a lot of the things I was taught about myself as a female.

To begin, I’d like to say that this is not a rant. While yes, that certain comment by a Facebook contact about how he hates that “chicks are bitches when they’re drunk” boils my blood to a temperature the devil himself would be proud of, this is a brief explanation of how I reached a particular stage in my life.

This is about the ‘unlearning’ I did of all that society had taught me about my gender. It’s about the active steps I began to take in order to change my way of thinking, something that has been ingrained since birth. And so, I sought out a way to combat the mindset which had begun to hinder my public interactions.

I grew up to find that blue doesn’t have to mean boy and pink doesn’t have to mean girl. Groundbreaking, I know. But it’s the basic steps in realising you’ve been fed a convenient lie. A lie which most of the population still believe. It’s confronting, to come from the school yard where playground limitations are placed on you just because ‘you’re a girl’, to interactions in the public sphere where this sort of discrimination actually has a name – sexism.

Personally, I don’t stray from manual labour – I enjoy a bit of animated violence in my video games, and I love the way my dress billows in the breeze. I refuse to be defined by anything other than myself. No social expectation, label, or gender role will I let determine my beliefs and interests as an individual.

This brings us to the question: do I accept feminism as my lord and saviour? The answer is yes, in its simplest terms, but no to the religious connotation I’ve jokingly implied.

In Monica Dux and Zora Simic’s 2008 The Great Feminist Denial, their research led them to believe the perception existed that there was another kind of feminist in existence, the “scary, unreasonable radical who nobody wants to identify with, but everyone is quick to name.” This aggressive, all-encompassing, preaching figure is the stereotype that appears to be holding back the general feminist conversation. Basically, I believe in the social conversation that is feminism, the equality that it, itself, believes in, and the simple truth that you don’t have to understand its history to share its values.

Tavi Gevinson, founder of Rookie Magazine, recently spoke at the 2013 Melbourne Writer’s Festival and said in a TED Talk in 2012 that she believed a very alienating misconception of feminism is that girls think that to be a feminist they have to live up to being perfectly consistent in their beliefs, never being insecure, never having doubts, and having all of the answers.

“Reconciling all of the convictions I was feeling became easier once I understood that feminism is not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process,” she said.

Much as my ‘unlearning’ is a process, Gevinson is completely right in saying feminism is a discussion. In The Great Feminist Denial, Dux and Simic said that “many women who see themselves privately as a feminist are nonetheless uncertain about their right to speak about it or even call themselves one.” Engaging women in this discussion is pivotal, as is defining, in some way, the era of contemporary feminism. My ‘unlearning’ is a phase that a lot of girls my age, and younger, go through and come out the other side ready for discussion.

In terms of what I actually ‘unlearnt’, my biggest piece of advice is to fight against that instinct telling you to stay silent. I always felt it was necessary to give a polite and endearing first impression, regardless of whoever it was I was supposedly trying to impress. This is counterproductive. Of course, I still believe it’s important to remain polite, but just don’t feel the need to agree with everything said in order to remain on someone’s ‘good side’.

Because, guess what?

If someone tells a sexist joke, you don’t have to laugh.

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