I was watching a movie the other night with the Handsome Sidekick. As is often the case, I nodded off, and on rousing myself some minutes later, decided I needed to get a cup of tea to wake up so I could see the rest of the film. While waiting for the kettle to boil, we discussed the story so far.
‘I’m a little confused,’ I admitted. ‘I thought… wasn’t it about space?’
‘I thought this one was where they were in space.’
‘No. You’re thinking of the new one. This one’s Jack Reacher.’
There was a pause while I reviewed the film in my mind in terms of it not being what I thought it was.
‘It’s disappointing,’ I said.
(I was doing that thing I do, when I assume that people can read my mind and therefore that they’ve followed my up-until-now-silent train of thought.)
‘I kind of hoped that the woman would have more to do with it.’
‘What are you talking about? She does! She’s the one on the case!’
‘Yes, but… it’s like he’s in charge. It annoys me that she doesn’t have more of a role.’
‘What were you expecting?’
I thought about that, and it dawned on me.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘I guess it’s called Jack Reacher for a reason.’
I had been expecting that the movie would have a more important role for the woman, that she would be front and centre, and I was disappointed when that didn’t happen. But honestly, the film never pretended to be something it wasn’t (even if what it wasn’t was Oblivion, and that’s obviously not its fault, either). I just wanted it to be something else.
There was a recent uproar about how Disney was going to give the Princess Merida from Brave a ‘makeover’, which involved making her older, more shapely in appearance, and with significantly different features. The internet exploded in a spitting fit of indignation that Merida, a tomboy princess who refused to bend to traditions and was so endearingly stubborn and headstrong, would be turned into yet another Disney Princess clone. And Disney backed down. It appears they misjudged just how many parents had been holding out for a girl-character who climbed trees and got dirty and rolled her eyes at her parents and was impulsive and messy… just like their own little princesses.
It’s not just the role of women in films, though. Lately, there seems to be a lot of discussion about women in politics, in the workplace, in everyday life. There is a lot of noise about equal pay, about inherent and endemic sexism. I’m not arguing that these discussions aren’t necessary or valid. I absolutely agree that discrimination against women exists, and I would like for that to change. But… it’s not going to.
Let me illustrate, with some wise words from one of my favourite people, Aung San Suu Kyi. I was listening to an interview with her a few years ago, where the interviewer was asking about the (then) recent protests in Burma. These protests had been splashed across our televisions and newspapers for weeks, and the world watched in hope, as monks and students and all manner of people in Burma took to the streets against their military rulers. We held our collective breath and felt real, tangible excitement and maybe even joy, at the way these people seemed so fearless in the face of brutal oppression. And then: the brutal oppression. The military smothered the uprisings, and world watched, with bubbling, impotent anger, because it seemed like it was all for nothing.
The radio broadcaster asked Aung San Suu Kyi if she didn’t think that the uprisings were pointless? If the 1988 protests, especially, had been in vain, because of the number of deaths, and because it ultimately led to her house arrest for so many years? Unfortunately, I’m no longer sure who was conducting the interview, nor can I quote her verbatim, but her answer was basically that she didn’t think that the protests had been in vain, either time. Especially in 1988, because social change takes time. And if the 1988 protests had not taken place, then perhaps the 2007 ones might not have, either, and even though they were also stamped out at the time, it still led to change.
Her point was: you cannot expect immediate results.
Change comes slowly. The Arab Spring seemed to gain momentum with such alacrity, it seemed like decades of oppression would fall away almost immediately, and that the result would be instant democracy and an end to corruption, extremism, censorship. Yet, two years later, while there has been change — and some of it, for the better — there are still many issues to resolve. Some of that is because democracy is not a magic bullet to cure whatever ails us. Some of it is because when something boils over, there is usually a pretty big mess to clean up.
Change comes slowly. It involves challenging passionate beliefs and realising that things could be different from how you wanted, from what you expected. It is painful and hard work. The protests in the street is the part with the drama and the excitement; it’s the part where you can ‘see’ something. Then begins the behind-the-scenes part, the get-your-hands-dirty part, the sweating and the discomfort and the needing-to-have-vision part.
It’s only in hindsight that you can see all that. In the present, it seems disjointed and irritatingly tedious. If you are looking at the world, now, expecting that social change should happen overnight, that women should be able to hold public office without having to deal with misogynist remarks, that women should be able to earn as much as men when doing the same work, that criticism of a woman should be based on her work or her arguments rather than what size clothes she wears or how good she might be in bed… then, you are going to be disappointed. Because this is not that story. It is a different story, where men are still in charge, where men make decisions about what women can do. In this story, the man is the main character, and the woman is the sidekick. The man chooses where he’s going. The woman follows. The man is where the action is. The woman is waiting for his return.
This story is the story which has been retold and rewritten for hundreds of years, and will continue to be retold and rewritten. This story is not about the woman. So you need to get over your expectation that it will be different. Get over your disappointment.
And begin to write the story you want to hear.
Because that change you’re after… yes, it comes slowly, but even a slow start is a start. And if you don’t start now, you might never get to see the happy ending.