Doing it for ourselves

Men handed the reins of sexism to women as we discovered our inner misogynist

What has been the shape of womankind in the past ten years, in countries rich enough to know better? Self-conscious, skinny, fake and miserable, with a disingenuous smile. As we hurtle through the 21st century in a maelstrom of CO2 emissions, flash floods and forlorn-looking polar bears, the largest human group on the planet is not faring well either.

British and American women are told, by apolitical men and women alike, that we have never had it so good. If that's the case, life must have been absolutely barbaric before, because this is what we have now: the obscene injustice of the gender pay gap, no free universal childcare, the joke of rape conviction rates, marked under-representation as creators and leaders, endemic sexual harassment, unchanged domestic violence statistics, the accepted abuses of prostitution and trafficking, a huge imbalance of labour in the home and a general denial of the sheer, wretched, craven unfairness of all of the above.

This great trove of riches is topped off with the prevailing image of woman in the media, in music videos, film, art both high and low, in adverts, on magazine covers. What is this woman? She is young, white, thin, silent, beautiful, inert, blandly smiling and tackily sexual. She is not an athlete and has no talent except to move well and take off her clothes. She is on the cover of women's and men's magazines, staring vacantly into the camera. She is used, wistfully looking into the middle distance, on the cover of novels by women who surely deserve better. She is used in television adverts, perkily grinning and "juggling" her unjustly apportioned chores, to sell everything from bio yoghurt to insurance to headache tablets. She is the dead body in crime dramas. As one of the nameless "girls" of the fashion industry, she trudges up and down the catwalk to sell clothes to women twice her age and size, in an industry where the men are called design geniuses and women work diligently under them as stylists and hair and make-up artists.

This young woman's image is so ubiquitous as to go unquestioned and almost unnoticed. That is to say, we women have accepted it. We are no longer outraged. Instead, young women fall in with the image that is presented. It does not occur to them that beauty and youth and vapidity are boring, both for the protagonist and for the people she is likely to meet out in the real world. They are red herrings, diversions from the path to happiness and fulfilment. Behind the façade of the "fabulous" is good old-fashioned oppression and internalised misogyny.

Twenty-first-century woman is truly independent: she doesn't need men to hate her - she can do it alone, to herself and to other women. And so it is that the most open and vicious attacks on women's appearance, the most stringent inspections and damning rules, the most bilious critiques, come from other women. The great triumph of misogyny has been its ability to infect its victim so that the hand of the master doesn't need to work the levers for the system to continue. Where is the fightback?

Bidisha is a broadcaster and novelist


Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus