It’s a Girl’s World By William Bowles

3 August 2004

Anybody who has been reading my serialised novel ‘XX‘ will know that I have an abiding interest in issues surrounding gender. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least my own experience of being a man in a man’s world. It occurred to me that I rarely write about issues of gender let alone sexuality in my ‘political’ columns (‘analysts’ can arrive at their own conclusions). Not being a particularly ‘masculine’ man, and in fact recognising that I have a strong ‘feminine’ side to my personality, something that I’ve long had a problem coming to terms with, has forced me to deal with the issue, even if in a roundabout (read cowardly) way. But as I’ve gotten older and perhaps gained a greater understanding of myself, it has enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of the societies I’ve grown up in and at the same time, a better understanding of myself. Indeed, the question of identity goes to the very heart of the beast that is capitalism, for it is through perverting the nature of our identities as men and women that it is able to control us.

What is clear to me is that under capitalism, being one’s self is simply not permitted. The state will go to almost any length to crush anybody who steps outside the bounds of the permissible. It is only through immense courage and tenacity that people can challenge the hegemony of the state let alone change things. Such are the power of the institutions of the state especially education, the role of consumption and the (increasingly disintegrating) family unit. In part this disintegration has been brought about by the capitalist economy itself in an irony of discrimination – the feminisation of labour and the exploitation of women as consumers of vast quantities of the ‘feminine’ especially clothes, cosmetics and ‘household’ goods through advertising and its intimate knowledge of our needs and the ways of diverting those needs, away from relationships and into consumerism.

As John Berger put it in ‘Ways of Seeing’ (buy it from Amazon UK or Amazon US), there are three fantasies that advertising exploits:

  1. The fantasy of the skin
  2. The fantasy of the faraway place
  3. And the fantasy of being somebody else

The three fantasies that Berger so accurately identified back in the 1960s, tap into our deepest needs as humans. The first, the fantasy of the skin, exploits our need for intimacy and human contact and redirects it toward an addiction to things, an addiction that can never be sated as it can never be fully satisfied.

The second, our longing for a better life that can be found somewhere else, often an idealised environment of wealth or of peace and contentment.

The third, the fantasy of being somebody else, taps into our dissatisfaction with our lives, the frustrations and disappointments of lives lived without real purpose. Oh, if only we could be rich, famous, beautiful!

The creation of an ‘ideal’ in the personification of the feminine whether through the need to sell or in an attempt to maintain the status quo, has led to a kind of social schizophrenia for men as well as increasing the gap between the genders into a yawning chasm.

Women are increasingly presented in an ‘ideal’ way, whether through the body as something that all women should see as a state of perfection to be reached or, as an ‘object’ for men to ‘possess’ and worship.

That gender is intimately connected to capitalism, indeed to class societies of all kinds should be apparent to most people even if they subscribe all kinds rationales to ‘explain’ such divisions, such as the ‘nature’ of men and women and the ‘natural order’ of things. And essentially, the same arguments are used to rationalise the alleged superiority of one ‘race’ over another, this in spite of the fact that there is only one human species.

On the one hand, the socialisation of women that enables women to ‘express their feelings’, to ‘bond’, to enter into relations with one another are at the same time, denied to men. Instead, ‘male bonding’ relies even more on the traditional male roles. So whilst the feminine enters into the mainstream of society as something to be admired, men retreat into the masculine world of the past rather than extending themselves into a possible future. As ever, the only way the ‘feminine’ is allowed to penetrate the world of men is through consumerism. Hence, cosmetics are now ‘okay’ for men, as long as they remain ‘manly’. So powerful is the patriarchy that even after forty years since the advent of the modern ‘women’s liberation movement’ in the 1960s, the masculine is still firmly entrenched at every level of society. In fact, in some areas, politics for example, men are more firmly entrenched than ever.

This is not good time to be an ‘ordinary’ man. By this I mean, that perhaps for the first time in history, the fundamental roles, even the so-called nature of men and women is being challenged and asserted, all at the same time! But just as man’s traditional role is being challenged, it is at the same time being justified through the spurious use of ‘science’.

The kinds of contradictions – paradoxes – that are being created by capitalism as it attempts to reconcile what are essentially mutually exclusive forces is revealed for example, by the attempts to use genetics to justify the differences between men and women. The ‘male’ brain, the ‘female’ brain, the ‘left’ side and ‘right sides’ of the brain that are alleged to be male and female, there’s even an alleged ‘homosexual brain’ (somewhere in the middle?).

Is it not a supreme irony that the more we supposedly know about the chemistry of the brain and about evolution has been distorted and used to justify the preservation of the status quo by cloaking our relationships in a veneer of pseudo-science.

Of course there are differences between men and women, any fool can see that but as to what they are, is open to all kinds of interpretations. Moreover, how important are the differences and who are they important to? One has to ask the fundamental question, who stands to gain and who stands to lose by defining the masculine and the feminine in particular kinds of ways?

Why for example, is it easier for a woman cross the barrier between the feminine and the masculine? Social conditioning is part of the answer that is down to the simple fact that it is considered less important whether or not women ‘transcend’ a male imposed division between the genders, as long that is, as the ‘crossing’ is merely surface. I contend further that central to the division between the genders is the commanding role that men play in determining the nature of society and what they consider important. After all, virtually all of the major elements that determine what we as a society undertake, are determined by men, whether in science, history, education, economics, politics, medicine, you name it. Would women for example, spend billions on particle physics let alone weapons? The entire history of anthropology for example, has been until recently, determined by men with all that that means, from the assumption of ‘man the hunter’ through to the focus on the lesser role of women in the development of society.

Yet increasingly, presenting women as ‘superior’ to men is revealing much about the workings of capitalism, for all the qualities that women possess through the ‘feminine’ socialisation process, are precisely the qualities that are missing from capitalism such as cooperation, empathy, nurturing, tolerance, understanding, listening and so forth. Hence the need to make these qualities as something unique to women rather than qualities we should all possess as human beings.

Therefore the qualities essential to becoming fully human are restricted to the female half of the species. Men meanwhile, can continue to pursue their alleged genetically supplied inheritance of violence and war because men, conveniently, are driven not by circumstance but by testosterone. But what of Abu Ghraib?

And it is perhaps also no accident that the kinds of destructive behaviour once thought to be the unique prerogative of young men is now also being exhibited by young women in so-called developed societies: binge drinking/drugs, violence and crime for precisely the same reasons, namely the divisive nature of overdue capitalism that now pressures young women to compete with men on ‘equal’ terms. Increasingly then, both men and women are being driven in two opposing directions that are creating intolerable contradictions.

As a response, capitalist society is widening its definitions of crime in a futile attempt to control the products of its own contradictions and as ever, totally blind to its own irrationality. Increasing repression will lead inevitably to increasing resistance, thus polarising society to an ever greater degree. But lacking any kind of coherent resistance, nihilism rules.

Where is this all leading and is there an alternative? The answer lies in the failure of the traditional left to produce solutions because it is rooted in the strictly material domain, ‘standards of living’ and the acquisition of things. Values are there (somewhere) but are vague and assumed to be rooted in material prosperity somehow. In other words, comfort, wealth, will produce values, or rather the values lie in the material acquisition. Yet obviously they don’t. To look beyond this we have to redefine ourselves as men and women and the relationships between us.

There can be no doubt that the disintegration of capitalist society is impacting most on women and on every level, from the rearing of children to low paid work. And this is a global phenomenon not confined to the so-called developed economies as ‘globalisation’ impacts on the poor countries of the world through the export of jobs to cheap labour markets. Global capitalism is rapidly destroying social and family relations wherever it touches down.

So should it be a ‘girl’s world’? Would such a world be any better? What is clear – to me at least – is that roles of men and women are intimately connected to the nature of capitalism, hence the redefining of our roles as men and women is directly connected to getting rid of capitalism. It follows therefore that women as a political force are indispensable in the struggle for change but in what capacity? Can the values that currently assumed to belong to the female of the species, nurturing, communality, socialisation and so on, be harnessed to bring about political and economic transformation?

And what of the roles of men who currently control the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy? For although women play a pivotal role in bringing up the next next generation and increasingly a central role in the economy, they still play a minor role in the affairs of state. And what of the promise of socialism of the 20th century, of equality between the sexes? And today, when it is still largely men who decide, who write and theorise about the future?


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