Saturday 8th October
Durham Town Hall
Review by Amrita Paul
On a sunny yet cold Saturday morning, I found myself seated in the beautiful Durham Town Hall listening to Laura Bates read selected passages from her recent book, Girl Up.
The packed audience on the first day of the Durham Book Festival erupts with laughter at Laura’s opening quip, a favourite response to being catcalled:
‘My dick is not gonna suck itself.’
‘It has obviously got great taste.’
Most inside the Town Hall are young women, clutching copies of their books or taking copious notes, listening with rapt attention.
Laura’s one hour session was filled with anecdotes. From her life, when she had just finished university and moved to London to be an actress, along with her boyfriend who had similar career ambitions. While the roles he happened to audition for were nuanced, ‘sensitive architect’ for example, the character descriptions on her end often read along the lines of ‘32DD’ or ‘vixen but virginal’, ‘naïve but fuckable’. She mentions recent statistics which show that less than 20 per cent of speaking parts go to women, and in a third of those cases, the roles are overtly sexualised.
Hers was ‘a slow awakening’ to the normalised and yet rampant sexism around her. Realisation, she says, occurred suddenly over the course of one week, during which she was aggressively propositioned and followed home by a man, subjected to a stranger who held her hand outside a café and refused to let go, and again groped by someone in a bus, where in spite of her shouting out aloud, fellow passengers simply chose to ignore her. Everybody has a tipping point, and this was hers when she realised the extent to which women normalise the amount of abuse and harassment they face – at work, public spaces, in schools and universities.
This led to Bates starting the Everyday Sexism Project which was to be a simple website where women could send in their stories and experiences, but with over 80,000 entries from all over the world within just a few weeks, this inclusive space spiralled into something which needed the world to take heed and pay attention.
Girl Up! is funny, poignant and timely. It is an extension of the author’s activism, but it is also a handbook for young girls, who often start worrying about their bodies from the time they are as young as five. The fact that sixty per cent of young boys have access to mainstream, abusive and aggressive porn from the age of 14, without any access to sex and healthy relationships education, leads to young girls being raped in their schools. At least one rape is reported across schools in the UK, every day.
A young boy assumes this is what I have to do, that’s what it looks like, if she is crying, she is just enjoying it. And a young girl is stuck in a flux. If she complies, she is a slut or a slag, if she doesn’t she is uptight and a frigid bitch. And yes, more than a third of Britain’s teenage girls have been recently found to be suffering from depression and anxiety.
Laura Bates understands that young women are in crisis and we need to do something about it. That the gendered language used to describe mental health issues (see ‘hormonal’ and ‘drama queen’) only aggravates the self-harm.
The problem of exclusion starts when a toddler picks up a stethoscope and someone rushes to comment that she’d grow up to be a nurse, because of course she is a girl and not a boy. It starts when boys are not allowed to play with dolls and girls sent to playschool in frilly frocks which keeps them from comfortably engaging with their environment.
Bates says, ‘It is important to name a problem to solve a problem. Gender inequality has a disproportionate impact on women.’ Feminism is not an obscure tag, demonising men and burning bras, it is acknowledging that women should be paid equal to men, that they could be scientists, doctors, filmmakers, homemakers, whatever it is that they want to be. And young girls should feel at liberty to make these choices.
We need to spread understanding that a woman’s worth is not limited by the shape of her body, or that an act of assault is not her fault even if they were in a short skirt late in the night, drinking, smiling too much or too little.
The session ends on a hopeful note with a final question during which Bates advises her teenaged self, ‘It is not you… you are not the problem. The world is a problem and we can all tackle it together.’