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Men don’t understand women. At least, you can’t begin to imagine they do, if recent coverage of Angela Rayner is anything to go by.
First, we had that odious story in the Mail on Sunday; an eye-watering paean to sexism accompanied by an image of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Then we had the details: an anonymous Tory MP alleging that Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, would cross and uncross her legs during PMQs to distract Boris Johnson.
And finally, the denouement: the newspaper’s editor, David Dillon, refusing to meet Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle over the issue; his defence being one of free speech, and the fact that Rayner had already “joked” about being compared to the actress on a podcast with Matt Forde, earlier this year. As my colleague Harriet wrote so succinctly this morning: “You get the nauseating, sexist, belittling picture.”
The Mail insists that Rayner “laughed along”, presumably to prove that she must have somehow been okay with having her political credentials and experience called into account; that she somehow signed off on the sexist, classist attack. Well, here’s a newsflash for you, and to all who make misogynistic jokes about women: we might laugh, but we’re anything but okay with it.
Au contraire, what our uncomfortable titters (and if you listen in to Rayner on that podcast, she does not sound remotely comfortable, she also describes it as “mortifying”) really mean is that we want to move things along, that we want the situation to proceed calmly and without a hitch, and perhaps that we don’t feel safe.
That’s how it works for women. We laugh along because we don’t have a choice. We laugh along because we’ve been taught to. We laugh along to keep the peace. We sometimes laugh along – particularly when it involves a stranger bothering us – because we’re frightened, actually. Because we know (whether through past experience, trauma or simple social conditioning) that if we don’t keep things sweet; if we stand up for ourselves; if we politely but firmly decline the attention – or even tell someone straight out to “piss off” – then things might turn aggressive.
Show me a woman who hasn’t, at some point in her life, been accosted by a strange man in a bar or pub or cafe; a man who has already dragged his chair over to her table before asking if she minded (and it is always an afterthought). A drunken man, or set of men, who strike up conversation by way of butting in when you’re out with friends you haven’t seen in forever, having a perfectly lovely time together before their unwanted incursion. A man on public transport, say; who gestures to you to stop reading the book you’re reading, or to take your headphones off and turn off the Taylor Swift playlist you’ve been lost in, because it is unthinkable that you wouldn’t jump to relinquish your precious moment alone to talk to him, a stranger, a man with a penis.
It starts young for women, too – that’s how the social conditioning kicks in. I remember being nine and deeply uncomfortable with the attention of a waiter in a French restaurant who insisted on holding my hand and kissing it; who called me “princess” and mouthed kissy-lips at me the entire night I was out with my family, and everyone laughed along. I remember being 19, showing my friend Lisa around London on her first trip on the Tube, and the man who sat opposite us and stuck his tongue between his two fingers and harrassed us, demanding that we “snog”.
I remember just a few months ago, being out for cocktails with some of my female colleagues. We were talking, were animated, having fun; we weren’t remotely seeking the company of men we didn’t know. Yet it was forced upon us, as happens so often to women when they’re enjoying each other’s company. We had to go through the predictable, ritualistic rigmarole of having our conversation interrupted, of sighing as we did the whole, “shake hands, answer questions about our names, why are you out tonight” yawn-fest.
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I have to admit that on this occasion, I lost patience with it – it’s happened too many times. And yes, perhaps this particular group of men were well-meaning, friendly, just “making conversation”, but as soon as I told them (politely) that we “would like to carry on talking amongst ourselves, thanks”, they became frosty, lairy and rude.
And so, women learn, you see, to sigh and wearily accept the constant (and consistent) interruptions; to give up their personal space in order to respond to inanities like, “what’s your name?” or “what are you reading?” and “mind if I join you?” and the inevitable, “can I have your number?”
Why do we do it? Well, just think about the reaction we get if we politely decline – think about “Cat Person”, the New Yorker short story that went viral for its depiction of what happens when you spurn a man you’re dating; the lightning-speed transition from sexual rejection to being called a “whore”.
The trouble for women is that we sense that we have to keep those who unexpectedly interrupt us calm and happy, at all times, because at some raw and atavistic level we are aware that our lives might depend on it. The old Margaret Attwood adage has never been more true: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Many of us gatekeep and keep the peace, however unconsciously, to keep ourselves safe. And yes, that includes “laughing” at sexist jokes that demean and disrespect us, however they’re dressed up.