How patriarchy is like The Matrix

Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the film Pride. It’s a feel good activist film based on a true story (if a little on the cheesy side). BUT I had a pretty major problem with it as a feminist.

In case you haven’t seen it, Pride tells the story of the amazing solidarity group LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The group formed at the 1984 gay pride march, where they started shaking buckets to raise cash for the striking miners. It’s a wonderful story about one oppressed group reaching out to support another. Their solidarity was reciprocated and the miners union subsequently played an important role in getting the Labour party to support LGBT rights.

There’s lots that’s good about the film – the success of an unlikely solidarity movement is really moving and inspiring. The working class small town Welsh miners they support are at first very wary of the ‘perverts’ who want to give them money. But their clear goodwill and persistence wins them round in a heartwarming way.

I’ve just spent my weekend running an activist training for ActionAid UK Local Organisers where we explored the importance of storytelling and the values and morals underlying different tales. The clear values underlying this film are equality, solidarity, uniting against oppression, the importance of friendship with those ‘not like you’ – it’s almost the perfect film for inspiring activism and campaigning (aside from the sexism I’m coming to explain below).

There’s a lot to celebrate about how some female characters are portrayed too. For example, it tells the story of Sian James whose involvement in the strike inspired her to carry on campaigning, eventually becoming a Labour MP. It smashes the Bechtel test with a few strong women. BUT (here it comes)… it sneaks through some shocking misogyny, and the ratio of men to women overall is about 3:1.

The film tells the story (true to real life) of how some women split from LGSM to form their own group – LAPC (Lesbians Against Pit Closures). Ray Goodspeed, an LGSM member, said that: “The men in the meetings were generally like men in most meetings”. Meaning they dominated speaking and decision making. LAPC wanted a safe space for women where members would be heard and decisions would be made democratically.

These women were upset about the structural problem of ‘mansplaining‘ – the way men interrupt women and dominate conversations. Women are socialised to be considerate and defer to put others first; men are socialised to dominate and take the lead. This is as much of a problem 30 years on as it was in the 1980s, and the problem often isn’t recognised. Men don’t generally realise they are doing this, and studies show they think women speak more than they actually do.

The need for women’s voices to be heard is delivered in the film as a ridiculous joke when the (male) LGSM leader is talking about an important decision he’s about to make. In an interview with the New Statesmen, lesbian activist Wendy says “when I told people about LAPC they often snorted with derision, so [the film] was accurate!” She’s understandably bitter.

It’s really messed with my head! Why is the film so positive about two oppressed groups – working class striking mining families and their gay metropolitan London supporters – and yet totally gender blind when it came to the way LGSM treated its marginalised female members?

The short answer is that Pride was written and directed by men, so  the film takes a male perspective. Plus it’s much easier to tell a story of binary good and bad, where the heroes are 100% good, united in fighting a common enemy (in this case the Thatcher government). It’s harder to share the nuance of how the heroes were themselves oppressing another group because they live in a society which privileges a male perspective & therefore doesn’t understand women’s issues.

Caroline Criado-Perez describes the essence of the problem with social representation of gender beautifully in her LSE talk discussing her new book. She describes the phenomenon of ‘male default’ – if we think of a person, especially anyone in a position of importance or power, we automatically think of a man. Politician, musician, scientist, etc. The little green man is male, stick figures are male. Women are denoted with a little triangle added to a stick figure – ‘modified’ men.

Intersectionality means that groups that are multiply oppressed have big issues getting their voices heard in activist groups (and wider society). Gay women, for example, can be marginalised in gay groups (when men dominate) and in women’s groups (when straight women dominate). When you bring race into the equation, things are even tougher. In this film showing the relative privilege of different groups, the person who has suffered most structural oppression is black, gay and female.

Society is structured from a male, white, cis-gendered, middle aged, middle class perspective. This is the male default. Any deviations from this are ‘otherings’ that mean groups of people enjoy less privilege, less visibility and less social consideration. In the top 100 grossing films of 2014, only 12% of protagonists were female & just 30% of speaking parts were given to women. 74% of these women were white. These media representations are a sad reflection of social privilege.

Criado-Perez is passionate about the issue of women’s representation. Having founded The Women’s Room, a database of female experts for media interviews, and having won the campaign to get Jane Austen on the £10 note, she has just published Do it Like a Woman: And Change the World. The book celebrates the stories of many remarkable women, proving that women can do pretty much anything as well as (often better than) their male peers. Here’s what she says about patriarchy:

“I always think of patriarchy as something like the film The Matrix. You are living in it every day, but you don’t see it. Indeed, it is because you are living in it that you don’t notice it: it’s everywhere, in everything. How can you know, when you don’t know any different? But then something happens to make you see the world in all its carefully organised inequality, all the hundreds, thousands of strands that make it up – and suddenly you can’t stop seeing it.”

I guess my argument is that we all need to check our privilege and ask others from different groups about their experience of discrimination. We need to start listening. This especially applies to activists – if we’re trying to achieve social and environmental justice in the wider world we need to first address diversity, power and privilege within our own movement. If you’d like some tips on how to do this, ex Friends of the Earth staff Jannat Hossnain and Shilpa Shah have written a great piece on How to take the environmental movement out of its white, middle class ghetto.

Please feel free to share this with any aspiring writers or directors of activist films…

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5 Comments

  1. I was with you all the way until you said that ” women can do pretty much anything as well as (often better than) their male peers.” In an article about sexism you surely see the irony in that.

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    1. It’s in the context of the examples she gives Pete. The point is showing how women can equal or beat men in male dominated professions – Arctic exploring, graffiti artists, climbing activists, helicopter pilots etc are some of the examples she gives. Not saying women are better than men, just that we can be 🙂

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