It might have seemed as if the isolation of lockdown was making people mad last month when the stars of the Harry Potter films turned on J.K. Rowling. They denounced the woman who had kick-started their careers, because on social media she had objected to the phrase ‘people who menstruate’.
It wasn’t celebrities going stir-crazy, however, but a public display of an ugly and strange change in our culture. From the time of Rowling’s tweet pushing back against the insistence of many that ‘trans women are women’, and expressing the need to retain some women-only spaces in an eloquent and personal essay, she has faced much worse than negative press statements. Deeply offensive language has been spewed at her online, trans women have posted pictures of their very male anatomy, pornography has been uploaded to the account in which she interacts with her young readers. Then there are the news outlets which will only say that Rowling has written ‘offensive’ tweets but will not expose the horrendous backlash she has faced. Perhaps worst of all have been the ordinary young women I’ve heard lament that they won’t ever be able to read another Potter book again. These young women would call themselves feminists, but have unwittingly absorbed a self-destructive misogyny.
There’s so much that could be said here about intolerance and fear and the very savvy use of media, but I want to focus on the ironic but inevitable resurgence of male dominance that has been exposed.
The feminist story goes that sexist anti-women attitudes result from the belief that men and women are different from each other. Accept that, and you chain women to the sink and take away their careers. Their lives go, literally, down the plughole. To say that women are different, we’re told, will mean that they are seen as inferior, just as people did in the bad old days. The impulse of feminism has (often, though not always) been to challenge ideas of difference and to strive for sameness, to reconstruct social expectations of what a woman can be and do. So, for the last 30 years in schools and in stories girls have been instructed that they can be anything they want and do anything they want. The results of this have been great in many ways; we have lots of female doctors and lawyers and an increasing number of engineers. We have equal pay and maternity rights. Girls receive better exam results than boys and more young women than men go on to university each year. You’d think that misogyny was a thing of the past.
The problem is that, as the J.K. Rowling story illustrates, it isn’t. Society may tell us that men and women are the same and have increased women’s representation in places of power, but violent threats on the internet and normalisation of violence in sex suggests that, whilst women in the West have more freedom than ever before, a visceral hatred of women has been growing like a weed.
The feminist answer will be that this comes from a masculine fear of the power of women. There may be some truth in that. But I have another idea. What if feminists’ great emphasis on sexual difference as socially constructed (and the right, or indeed the obligation, of women to behave just as they want, with no constraints) has led us into a savage place? What if, by telling boys and girls they are no different from each other, we have left them not knowing what to make of their instincts and bodies?
Perhaps society has created a gap into which pornographers – who will shamelessly distort images of masculinity and femininity – and cynical marketers – who will package pink and blue bikes, or Lego, or even Bibles – have stepped?
The truth is that when difference is reduced to atomised individual expression rather than being tied to physical reality, we cannot stop men saying that they are women and demanding to walk into women’s toilets. And we cannot call upon men to use their greater strength to respect and protect women, or even suggest to girls that they might consider respecting men and their own bodies.
It’s easy to criticise the ‘out there’ of the internet and politics and think that the conservative church is fine. But it’s not. The tangled knot of woman’s desire and man’s domination described in Genesis 3.16 affects us all. Unpicking it is our task, by the Spirit’s power. So here are some questions to start with:
As we talk about the problem of pornography, are we addressing not only the impure habit but also the sexism it breeds?
As we speak, are we checking our language and our jokes, avoiding stereotypes and sneering?
As we teach children in our churches and families, are we talking about both women and men of faith, their interdependence and service?
And as we review the activities of our churches post-lockdown, are we taking seriously the difference between men and women, as well as their sameness, and so addressing their needs, using their gifts and listening to their voices?
Difference needn’t be a dirty word, but understood in a framework of mutual sacrifice and respect, it can be a beautiful reality.
Sarah Allen lives in Huddersfield and is a member of Hope Church. She has degrees in English literature and Theology and combines teaching with church work. She is regional director of Flourish North, a training course for women in ministry.