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16 September 2014updated 04 Oct 2023 10:39am

We are drowning in stories that privilege the perspectives of white males

Women’s bodies – naked, airbrushed and objectified – are everywhere but our names, passions and histories remain invisible. Too often, women are reduced to a footnote in the tragic story of someone male who still gets to take centre stage.

By Glosswitch

Prior to the death of Reeva Steenkamp, the Oscar Pistorius story veered towards the schmaltzy. An inspirational, against-the-odds cockle warmer, it never quite seemed to suit the man himself. It’s only now, following the night of 14 February 2013, that it’s achieved some gravitas. Finally we have, to use the words of biographer John Carlin, “a classic tragic hero’s fall”:

. . . there’s a universality about this story. It fits into a recognisable narrative pattern going back to Homer.

Fellow Pistorius biographer Barry Bateman takes a similar view:

This is a classic tragic tale, the man who overcame disability to compete in the Olympics, the beautiful girl . . . He was a national hero and lost it all on 14 February.

No longer just Blade Runner, he’s now Othello, or Woyzeck, or Raskolnikov. Killing women: the ultimate genre boost.

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While I don’t expect the current slew of Pistorius biographies to turn up on GCSE reading lists in the near future, the use of terms such as “classic” and “tragic” – applied to Pistorius, not Steenkamp – horrifies me. It illustrates, if nothing else, the extent to which much of the literature we revere centres male subjectivity. Women die, yes, but this matters only in relation to how their death makes their killer feel. Women are expendable, not really there at all; it’s the man who’s left behind, making his excuses, expressing his remorse, despairing of his future, who gets all the attention. It is, we tell ourselves, intriguing; if slaughtered women didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them (and even though they do exist, in shocking numbers, we carry on inventing anyhow; you can never have too many plot devices).

It is for reasons like this that campaigns such as For Books’ Sake’s attempt to achieve greater diversity in GCSE English Literature specifications seem to me vitally important. We are drowning in stories that privilege the perspectives of white males; in spite of ourselves, we buy into the view that the world as they see it is all that there is (if Pistorius is “the only person who can say what his state of mind was,” does anything else matter?). I know there are arguments against demands for more female viewpoints: some of the most prolific crime writers are women; women write about women dying; not every female writer is a feminist by default. I know all this yet I still think it matters that women write, and that young people get to read women writing, whatever the subject matter. It matters because women have stories, too, and all too often ours get cut short. When narration is seen and experienced as male, so, too, is real life.

Whenever women ask for greater representation in politics or the arts, we are of course reminded that not all women are the same. We don’t have some monolithic shared experience so what could we have to offer that isn’t available already? If there’s no single definition of womanhood, then why should we care if most of time it is men who speak? But this is to miss the point. What matters is not that our stories are the same; it is that these stories are ours.

If we have a shared experience as women, it is that of not being seen as, and instead being defined by, men. And yet we are neither mirrors, nor props, nor decoration. We are not mere plot devices in the lives of self-styled tragic heroes; it is just our lot to be positioned that way. When members of the ANC Women’s League stood outside in the courts in protest at the Pistorius verdict, they knew that Reeva Steenkamp’s life – the life of a privileged white woman – had been nothing like their own. They still spoke for her, in sisterhood and solidarity. Steenkamp’s life was not emblematic of other women’s lives but her death, and the shoddy, shameful responses to it ever since, symbolise the low esteem in which all women’s lives are held simply by virtue of them not being the lives of men.

Feminists who focus on (among other things) the representation of women in public life tend to be mocked and derided. Why should they care about bank notes or GCSE specs or all-women shortlists, when there are more pressing matters to deal with? Yet representation is never a side issue; it is a fundamental challenge to the pervasive denial of our subjectivity. Women’s bodies – naked, airbrushed and objectified – are everywhere but our names, passions and histories remain invisible. We cannot expect men to believe that we are people, too, when every newspaper, magazine, political debate, court room, film, music video and novel suggests otherwise. Why wouldn’t a man feel that to lust after a woman, to rape her, even to kill her, is his tragedy alone, given that a woman’s perspective on anything at all is such a rarity?

Men do not notice that they own life’s narratives; most of the time, women don’t, either. It is what passes for normality. Nonetheless, this is the normality which goes on to justify a million “isolated incidents”, each one reducing a woman to a footnote in the tragic downfall of someone male who still gets to take centre stage. The dead women pile up, wasted flesh, useful only to those who wish to imbue the hate-filled souls of killers with complexity and meaning. If you find it hard to see the link between this and the objectification of women in society at large, just pick up any newspaper. Try rewriting each story, one by one, as though the perspectives of women mattered just as much as the perspectives of men. Imagine a world in which women were always represented in this way: not as objects, but as subjects. Imagine the mirror talking back.

We need women writers on GCSE specifications not because of what women write, but because of what women are: people, with as much right to occupy space as anyone else. It is an absurdity that the equal representation of women in public life – in arts, literature, politics, media – is still seen as both unnecessary and impossible to achieve. It is neither.

If our concept of “universality” only extends to what men experience, then it is not universal at all. I am sick of “classic tragic tales” in which a woman’s main role is to lie still, either being fucked or being dead. The subjectivity of women is not some outlandish feminist hypothesis; we, too, must speak.

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