Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Gender equality progress is mainly all surface

You’d be forgiven for thinking this International Women’s Day is different from the others. In recent years, we have seen some apparently radical changes in the way women are seen as well as an expansion of opportunities. This year, it will seem to some, we can use the day to remember recent triumphs of female empowerment.

This year we saw the first ever plus-size woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. We see valiant and crude-as-male female characters in film and TV, and some alternate representations of women. There are also now differently sized Barbie dolls. These coupled with the ubiquity of the feminist voice (especially online) as well as media backlash for any and all gender-related bigotry makes it seem that we are finally moving on to gender parity.

All have garnered much attention and have been celebrated by many, but how much of this can really be seen as true “progress”?

We do still live in a world where, for instance, the bodies of women are still commodified. With both Sports Illustrated and Barbie, there is still the tacit assumption that female esteem lives or dies by image. Don’t get me wrong — diversity in the media is always positive, but a few alternate representations do not put dents in the old conception of beauty, which is still very much dominant. What they may do is actually help in continuing the idea that image is paramount for women.

And those film and TV representations are no better. Once again, it is good that they’re there, but seeing women in comedies behave boisterously — however unapologetic — can prove tedious rather than interesting and subversive. Though there are intelligent and well-crafted films and female characters, them and their creators are often overlooked in the mainstream.

An important question to be asked is whether these are really baby steps towards a seismic shift, or merely out there to satisfy a few diversity goals, and increase the breadth of their consumer base?

Locally, last year’s virgin bursary controversy and President Jacob Zuma’s ill-advised comments about harassment flag an all-too-familiar and ingrained problem of gender perceptions. Oh, and also this.

Real change will begin only when women start to gain parity beyond the surface. When the pay gap loosens, when there is less commodifying of female bodies, and when there are representations and perceptions of women where image is at least diminished in importance.

Much like race, the gender problem is another rooted set of beliefs, where we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with perfunctory inclusions and concessions.

Google has greeted International Women’s Day, as it tends to do, with a Google Doodle where they “wanted to celebrate the next generation” of women, who, the video entitled #onedayIwill suggests, will go on to achieve more, moving into new territory. This serves a neat microcosm: Google hails women with a happy video, while still failing to actually give them opportunities.

That one day looks far away.

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