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On being brave (and not being)

August saw me being a smart arse on Twitter.

Quoth one well known journalist who used to be my next door neighbour:

“Sorry for the rather sneering nature of my last three tweets, but REALLY.”

Quoth I:

“I’m hoping they were regarding the terrible news that Ben Affleck is to be Batman #worthasneer

(well it is)

But actually, he wasn’t tweeting about Batman.  A wander through his Twitter feed told me that in fact he had been tweeting uncomplimentary remarks about people who were marching to ban lad mags.

That got me thinking.

All through my teens and twenties I didn’t know the “right” thing to say or think about Page 3 girls, lad mags or soft porn.  I knew I felt uncomfortable.  I knew it didn’t feel right to open up a newspaper and see a semi-naked sixteen year old girl bare-breasted on the third page.  But I was scared of being labelled a prude.  I wanted to fit in.  I wanted people to think I was relaxed.

Page 3 didn’t go away, it proliferated.  The same images are now all over news stands and in supermarkets, no longer hidden on Page 3 but on the front cover of mainstream men’s magazines.  It’s the new norm.

I believe in freedom of choice.  I believe in freedom of expression.  I don’t believe in censorship.  But how can it be right that my five year old daughter can’t browse the sweetie stand without looking up to see a row of oiled, provocatively posed women looking down at her.  How many readings of The Ordinary Princess can combat that?

Thinking about how we internalize equality – and inequality – made this come sharply alive for me.  I realised that the past few years have consolidated something in me, and more than anything, engaging with the presentation of women in comics and fantasy has made me sharply aware of the importance of making a stand.

Am I prude, I asked myself?

And then I thought of the Hawkeye Initiative and tried to conceive of what a world where men were depicted like sex slaves on the front cover of every magazine in town.  Would it change how I thought of them?  Would it change how I treated them?  Would it change my expectations?

Yes.  Yes it would. 

Of course it would.  Because I’d think that men would expect me to comment on their sexiness. I’d assume that men aspired to look like the men who were stuck up all over town, shimmering with baby oil and peeping out from under their eyelashes.  Damn it, it would be a slow slide into the Handmaid’s Tale  but in reverse.


And it doesn’t just apply to gender. It applies to all other forms of equality.

Every time we see a disabled person “rescued” from their disability (think John Merrick in Elephant Man) we’re taught that disabled people are helpless – and more importantly, they are too.

Last week I told my daughter I was going to see people in wheelchairs race up a mountain.  “People in wheelchairs can’t go up mountains,” she said, confused.  Already? I thought. She’s five.

And let’s not forget that  “It’s the Libyans!”  scene in Back to the Future, as a bunch of guys show up waving guns and shrieking. I used to house-share with a Libyan guy. It practically made his blood boil. “Because we’re all terrorists right? They’re not even speaking Arabic!”  Race and movies. Don’t even get me started.

But equally, every time someone changes the game – every time a Buffy appears, or a Princess Leia – I notice that too.  It slides into my subconsciousness and tells me that women are leaders.  That women can fight, think and strategise on equal terms.

These creations are choices.

Same as Marvel created Charles Xavier paraplegic – and made him the leader of the X-Men.  Same as Gene Roddenberry made Geordi La Forge blind, black – and the USS Enterprise’s Chief Engineer.

Sci Fi has shown us, many times over that where fiction leads, the world follows.

Those of us who create – and that’s most people when it comes down to it – carry a powerful responsibility. The images we produce and the words we write shape the world around us.  There is no such thing as a culture.  We are culture.

So like the wise man said, if we want to see change in the world we need to be it.

Meg McNulty AKA @charitygirlblog