Tara Moss’ book The Fictional Woman has been flying off the shelves since its release two weeks ago, and with good reason. It’s a blend of memoir, robust research, informed discussion and optimistic hope for change. Eminently accessible without ever condescending or dumbing down, it’s also a discussion about the gender based power structures, both historic and current, that limit the opportunities available to men and women.
While most of the book concentrates on this lack of opportunities for women and girls, Moss makes some thought-provoking points about the role of men in western civilisation. The way we see beauty is interesting in that we rarely notice male beauty. Men who aspire to physical adornment or display gentle characteristics are suspect, not “real” men. Male beauty has been celebrated in many cultures throughout history, but in ours it seems to indicate a failure of masculinity, whereas women fail by not being beautiful. This is just one of the paradoxes Moss describes in her book that demonstrate the ongoing disparity between genders, despite the gains we’ve made over the last 100 years.
It takes a skillful writer to weave a memoir of an extraordinary life into a story of the Everywoman without appearing disingenuous or self-indulgent. Moss carries it also because the incidents she describes - the dismissal, contempt, fear, violence and rage directed towards her by men - are exceptional only because they were so public. Remove the public nature, or her exposure to such things because of the public nature of her career, and every woman can recognise those moments in their own lives.
It’s striking, in a book about gender, that the adjectives that come to mind in reading her memoir have such a gendered edge. Ambitious. Driven. Intelligent. Disciplined. Successful. Powerful. Strong (both physically and mentally). Brave. Adventurous. Knowledgeable. Risky. All words that would traditionally be complimentary words for men but carry an underlying feeling of threat when applied to a woman. This becomes even more striking in the later chapters of discussion about the visible and invisible woman. The ways in which women are depicted in modern and historic storytelling demonstrate how Moss, not only in what she does but in who she is, refuses to fit any of the traditional female stereotypes.
She describes a number of incidents of sexual violence, all of them terrifying, but two in particular stood out to me because her response was not one typically expected from female victims:
There was, for instance, the man who followed me beside the tram tracks in the middle of Milan, in broad daylight, openly masturbating and grunting loudly, so that I could hear what he was doing. It was a deliberate act of perverse intimidation and I was so infuriated by it that I turned around and ran at him full tilt with my hands out like claws, screaming like a deranged warrior. He ran off with his tail between his legs – so to speak – and I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I’d caught him.
A few years later, when I stopped to watch a soccer game at a park, a group of six young Canadian men surrounded me and started making rude gestures, talking about how they’d ‘like to rape’ me. They were perhaps seventeen years old. I was twenty. One of the young men ran up and grabbed my breast, and when I turned around, infuriated, he ran away, laughing. I gave chase and they all took off, but I caught the one who had groped me, threw him to the ground, straddled his chest and punched him in the face until he cried. He was terrified. To be truthful, I scared myself. And I was crying too. While his friends surrounded us, suddenly aghast and frightened, I made them promise to ‘never, ever do that to any human being ever again’. They promised. I hope those young men kept that promise.
She describes in both these experiences a feeling of overwhelming rage that led her to actually attack her attackers and, in both cases, her rage and physicality made them afraid of her. This may have had something to do with a physical stature that not many women have, but perhaps her absolute refusal to play the part such men expect of women was more even more frightening.
Moss discussed the role of sexual violence further at the book launch in Melbourne. She talked about the universal nature of rape, and the shame that almost all victims feel. The shame crosses all cultural boundaries, it exists in western feminists who have survived rape as much as it does in survivors from Sri Lanka, the Congo and Bosnia. And there has never been any human civilisation in which rape was unknown, in which some portion of the men from that group did not believe they had an entitlement to sex that women could not refuse. And equally, that the women who were sexually available were cheapened by that availability. Those beliefs are implicit in the art and storytelling that survives from all known cultures.
There are several chapters in the book that look at the various female archetypes implicit in the stories, law and culture of most societies: the Virgin/Madonna/Whore categorisation. The siren, the beauty, the crone, the witch and the distressed damsel. “Real” women and invisible women. In almost every culture storytelling defines the “good” woman – virginal, passive, obedient, nurturing – and the “bad” woman – powerful, sexual, dangerous (to men), vicious, barren, old. The underlying theme in all of these tropes is that women who have knowledge, power or, most dangerous of all, sexual freedom, are bad and threatening, not just to men, but to the entire society.
And it’s interesting that the oft cited Margaret Atwood quote about men being afraid that women will laugh at them isn’t borne out by the historic archetypes and storytelling that Moss. The femme fatale, the whore, the witch and the crone are never notable for their derision of men. Their moral and mortal crimes are not emotional, they crimes of sexual freedom or the acquisition of power.
If it is true that men are so afraid of female amusement, why does it never appear as a trope? Perhaps the fear is not so much of ridicule, but the implied rejection of male power that comes with it.
Moss is right in saying that women have made gains over the last 100 years that have never existed before in history. We are, in the western world, legally people; we can own property, take out loans, demand to paid equally to our male counterparts and choose our own sexual and marital partners. Technically at least, we have recourse to the law when our bodies are violated. We have, in almost every way, overcome the legal expressions of male power. However, as Moss also points out with a series of depressing statistics, the legal changes have not flowed through into how we live and how modern culture represents us. Men still hold far more financial, legal and cultural power than women. Women are primarily depicted in mainstream storytelling as young, beautiful and passive. The modern pejoratives that are only applied to women demonstrate the underlying attitudes of female sexuality and power being dangerous and wrong. Slut, bitch, skank, ho, stuck-up cow, ball-breaker, battle-axe, gold-digger. None of those words apply to men, because their sexuality, their desire for power, their confident expression and acquisition of knowledge is not just allowed, but expected.
Moss ascribes the cultural resistance to female acquisition of power to the forces of history:
We know that the systems in place today, in our dominant culture, were for the most part created by one demographic – educated white men of European descent. I am not taking anything away from their various accomplishments by simply stating that fact. That the systems of government, law and commerce which exist today were largely created by this one demographic, and that this same demographic continues to hold power within these systems is not shocking, but a logical extension of what Allan G. Johnson refers to as ‘the paths of least resistance’. Wealth, influence and opportunity have largely been passed down from generation to generation – not just in a financial sense, but also in terms of access to the best education, most influential people and most promising opportunities. Breaking in from the outside is harder than simply following your ‘birth right’ or ‘destiny’. This is a pattern we have all observed and for the most part accepted: some are born into privilege. That the systems we exist within today were created by men means that women have had to work against considerable obstacles and resistance to be included at all. It has required activism.
Again, I agree with her analysis, but I suspect there is something more fundamental to it. Because this need to keep women powerless is not unique to modern western civilisation. Even the most primitive societies still had rules in place to control female sexuality and ensure they could not accumulate enough power, wealth or knowledge to free themselves from those rules.
Human history is not a series of static events. Each civilisation owes something to the one that came before it, stretching right back to the dawn of civilisation when humans, like all other animals, operated on basic atavistic instincts. The need for food, shelter, community and procreation. In almost every other species we can see males acting to ensure that their genes are the ones propagated by the females they’ve attached. This is not learned behaviour, this is one of the most basic instincts in the animal kingdom. Humans are obviously far more complex beings, but the basic drives remain. If male fear of female sexual freedom is based on this, it would explain its prevalence throughout human history. It explains the reaction of anger and fear in some men when faced with women who deny their right of access to female bodies. It explains the rage expressed by so many men over abortion, contraception, rejection and sexual power in women. It even explains the variation in individuals, as the active and passive expression of atavistic needs has always varied; indeed, evolution demands that it does. A species composed entirely of “alphas” would tear itself apart, not spread to dominate the planet.
The view that we cannot change the power structure may be pessimistic. Moss has an optimistic view on this however. She writes that a combination of ongoing group activism and small steps from individuals will eventually change the underlying attitudes that enforce those structures. I’m not sure if she is right but I do agree that humans have always refused to accept “natural” forces that oppressed them – cancer, smallpox, food shortages, predators – and have, in many cases, because of that refusal, learned to overcome them.
If this is true, then every discussion of the things that enforce and maintain the lack of opportunities available to women and girls, every refusal to accept the trope that female sexuality is dangerous or shameful, and every recognition that gender is not a basis for denial of power matters. Moss’ book is explicitly all these things, I applaud it and her, and if you haven’t already, you should definitely read it.