Portsmouth University student Penny Ward delves back into her childhood to moments when she learned some tough lessons about gender – and discovered the role models that would prompt her to become a feminist.
I remember the first time I realised just how differently boys and girls are treated.
I was six years old, long before I’d ever heard the word feminism. My hair was uneven, as I’d moved when she was cutting it, my mother insisted. I was sitting on the edge of the French windows that opened out from the living room to the garden. The rich sound of Bob Marley & The Wailers rang out throughout the house over the stereo system my father had set up. Usually I would be gleefully attempting to sing along, shouting what I thought the lyrics were while my father laughed at my ineptitude; but not today.
I sat uncomfortably on the step, clad in the itchy fairy-princess dress I’d been given for my birthday, and a pair of well-worn, muddy welly-boots. I watched as the football I’d begged my mother for was passed from father to son and then shot ecstatically into the goal. I watched the sacred bonding of father and son over my football, the one I’d saved my pocket money for. I refuelled my courage to, for the fourth time, ask to join in the game. I tried to ignore the jealousy boiling inside me and began to form the words on my tongue.
‘Oi!’ called my father, ‘go get us some drinks, would ya love?’
I was dismissed once more. He hadn’t even waited for me to utter the words this time. I left and didn’t look back, until I was carrying two plastic cups of water. I placed the cups of the concrete step by the French windows, kicked off my welly-boots, and fled to my room. I curled up on my Star Wars bed-sheets (previously my brother’s), and cried.
Years later, I still remember that moment with painful clarity. It was an epiphany: the reason my father didn’t want to play football with me was that I was a girl. His time, and the game I was so excited about, was only for boys. I spent most of my childhood as a tomboy, wearing my brother’s clothes, adopting the mannerisms of him and my older cousins, in the misguided rationale that if I acted like a boy, if I looked like a boy, then my father would love me.
My first introduction to the idea that being a girl was not something to be ashamed of was the Disney film Mulan. The simple question posed by the titular character about her dual identity (as a man and then a woman) was, for me, groundbreaking: ‘You said you trust Ping, why is Mulan any different?’ This shattered my conviction that to be born a girl made someone less than being born a boy. My life as a feminist began.
Later on, Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught me that being a girl meant more than what you were ‘not allowed to do’. Buffy showed me that a girl could save the world – not just one girl, but all. Whilst the show was problematic – particularly about the sexual agency of women – it was a godsend for a little girl who’d been consistently told by her father – like Buffy’s father – that she wasn’t good enough.
I first encountered the Twilight books at thirteen. Enthralled with fantasy novels, I eagerly consumed every word. Not until I finished the third book did I understand why the series unsettled me so much.
I watched as Bella Swan passively accepted the undeniable fact that she was lesser than her love interest, that her wants and desires should be secondary to Edward Cullen’s. I accepted that of course she’d try to kill herself after rejection, and of course she was worth less than the beautiful vampire family her beau belonged to. I completely ignored the predatory and abusive actions of Edward because they were romantic… weren’t they?
Edward broke into her home, stood over her and watched her as she slept, completely without her knowledge or consent. His acting as if she were the scum of the earth and insulting her with backhanded compliments were incredibly romantic, no? After all, it was all her fault that he treated her that way, was it not? That’s certainly what Edward told her at every opportunity.
I stopped reading the Twilight books after the fourth came out. I was no longer a thirteen year old, just beginning my forays into crushes and romances. I was at college, I was learning how to critically analyse books and, most importantly, I was old enough to understand what domestic abuse was.
I’d heard my parents shouting at night, and seen my mother’s deep purple bruises the next day. I knew it wasn’t normal for me to jump every time a person put a cup down too loudly, that someone silently washing the dishes didn’t mean I’d done something wrong. I had lived through emotional abuse, and had begun to come to terms with that fact.
After A-levels, I attempted to re-read Twilight. I was disgusted with the thought that I’d ever believed it to be a romantic ideal. The series glorifies the notion that women should be ‘looked after’ by having decisions made for them ‘for their own safety’. The series tells thousands of young girls that someone invading your personal space is not predatory but romantic. It tells them that a man wanting to kill you – but deciding not to – is the most loving gesture he could offer.
I find it odd that a nearly twenty-year-old television series (based on its first air date) that is only now being called ‘problematic’ is still more progressive on the gender question than a hugely popular book and film franchise that’s hailed by its creator Stephanie Meyer as a feminist work.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught an emotionally abused little girl that she mattered. Twilight told her, like her father, that she never would.