In my VCE English classes, we were taught about the universality of human stories. How storytelling has been used for hundreds of years as a means of teaching, connecting and allowing history to live on. So we studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet, because even a bunch of sixteen-year-olds in Melbourne can relate to a Danish prince who is contemplating whether or not to kill his stepdad. This is a man who encapsulates so much of our human experience, who ruminates endlessly on what it means to be alive, who is indecisive to the point of inertia – as a typical Libran, I can relate to that part especially.
I can immerse myself in Hamlet because I; like most women, have practiced being able to relate to characters not like myself when they are presented to me on screen or on the page. People of colour, non-binary, queer, disabled and other marginalised identities are even better practised than I am, so rarely do they see versions of themselves reflected back to them. But the straight white male is rarely able to practice this skill. Or when given the opportunity, some rarely take it.
Recently I was able to attend a free screening of the Netflix documentary ‘Audrie and Daisy’, organised by a local community group in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. ‘Audrie and Daisy’ is the heartbreaking tale of two girls who were sexually abused and vilified for it online. One of the girls committed suicide, the other attempted multiple times. Throughout this documentary, we learn Daisy’s story as she tells it, but also through her family, particularly her older brother. We come back to his interviews time and time again, as he struggled with the harassment directed at his sister in their small town, the anger he felt, and his decision to teach the young boys he coached in baseball about respecting women.
A few months later I was talking to a friend about ‘Audrie and Daisy’ and she articulated something that had bothered me about the film – “I felt like they kept focusing on the brother, when it was really Daisy’s story.”
This is a pattern we see repeated again and again – if we are to make the stories of women and other marginalised identities palatable, we have to position these people in relation to a man, in relation to whiteness, in relation to the ruling class. It parallels the depiction of the ‘White Saviour’ in media about civil rights – in the film ‘Hidden Figures’, Kevin Costner’s character destroys the “Coloured Ladies Only” bathroom sign, placating white audience members by assuring them that they were not ALL complicit in the dehumanisation of black people.
But it also reminded me of something Jeff Bucholtz, director of We End Violence, said during the Q&A after the film – “As a man, I can stand up here and young boys will listen to me. That’s my male privilege.” And in the same way, by inserting Daisy’s brother into the film, the makers of the documentary were able to give young boys watching someone to relate to other than the rapists. Frustrating though it might be, could this be a good thing in the end? By presenting the boys watching this film an alternative role model to the rapists, maybe they would take something more constructive from the documentary and model their behaviour accordingly.
In May this year, the elite Sydney University St Paul’s College once again came under scrutiny for the toxic culture festering within their closed doors, this time in relation to a Facebook post on a private page calling fat women “whales”. When asked how they were dealing with these kinds of attitudes in their students, St Paul’s pointed to the workshops run by former students (or “old boys”) through the Good Lad initiative. The Good Lad initiative focuses on what it calls “positive masculinity” and aims to provide young men with an alternative framework through which to view themselves. While this program could have a positive influence on these young men by allowing them different models of masculinity to relate to, there are no women involved in the process. This feels intrinsically wrong – it seems we need to spoon-feed men narratives that allow them to still be a hero, by presenting fellow men as role models, without once challenging them to empathise with women or other gender identities.
Which brings me to a dilemma– should we continue to insert male characters and stories into the narratives of women so that they may have someone to connect with, in the hopes they may take away something greater from the story? Or should we force them to look at things from a new perspective, to teach them empathy and give these characters value beyond their proximity to maleness, to whiteness.
I can’t offer a solution – obviously the best option is to destroy the patriarchy, destroy gender roles and destroy the toxic environments that allow injustice and oppression to flourish. But I am thinking more short-term here. All I can do is remember looking out at the audience on that night in Jackson Hole – I saw countless young women and their mothers. I saw maybe two fathers with their sons.