As a woman who very much believes that men and women are equal in most respects and ought to be treated as such, I feel sorry to call foul on actress Maria Bello, recently named goodwill ambassador for women by Haiti's president, for her advocacy work with women since the Haiti earthquake in 2012.
Last weekend, Bello spoke at TEDxMidAtlantic, an annual DC event modeled on the famous TED conferences, on the subject of women's empowerment and equality. Bello was largely inspiring. "You don't have to include us; we're including ourselves" was her message - she declared that women no longer need to depend on men to deliver equality; rather, they are simply seizing it. However, there were some other things she said that made me uncomfortable.
Bello described how she bonds with women wherever she travels in the world, and stated the key to such bonding is three common threads: children, lovelife, and fashion. As if to illustrate, she told an anecdote of her bonding with women in Haiti through comparing the size of their lovers' penises, complete with a rolled up piece of paper by way of a visual aid.
I have two problems with Bello's description. First, it depresses me to narrow the commonality between women down to children, lovelife and fashion. (By lovelife, Bello's descriptions established she specifically refers to a heterosexual lovelife.) Listening to her rather felt like we'd returned to the 1950s. Instead of seizing equality, as Bello suggests women should and are doing, she portrays women as reveling in their restrictive stereotypes. Indeed, Bello presents this diminutive world view as one that people seeking to connect with women from other cultures should replicate and promote.
The problem is that this world view of women's commonality excludes people like me, who don't have any dealings with children, have little to add on heterosexual lovelife (or desire to engage in this topic with strangers), and have an undevoted commitment to fashion. So where does that leave me? Extrapolating from Bello's theory, since I don't conform to her female norm, I will surely struggle to relate to women around the world on the subjects they care about. How regressive and diminishing for all the intelligent, diverse girls and women fighting for equality in education, employment, in leadership, and seeking role models. Why bother? Apparently all we really want to talk about is children, lovelife and fashion. Why worry our pretty little heads about shifting the paradigm, when we can just reinforce it instead.
My second problem with Bello's description is the comparing-sizes-of-men's-penises-as-bonding-exercise anecdote. We seem to be stuck in a depressing double standard where men openly comparing women's breast size is generally perceived as offensive, degrading, disrespectful and frankly unacceptable. Meanwhile, prompting women to openly compare men's penis size is suddenly being portrayed as not only empowering, but a desirable technique for furthering development, to be promoted at conferences to development workers. I can imagine the men in the room might have felt a little aggrieved at that (not to mention the men whose penis size was being depicted by the rolled up piece of paper)!
I've experienced it myself, many times. I absolutely understand the need for people working in development to find commonalities with the people in the communities in which they work. I know that unfortunately societal gender roles can restrict women's experiences. But do we have to establish commonalities by boxing women into regressive, disempowering, Western 1950s stereotypes that embrace sexism, diminish their aspirations, and reinforce their identities as good little housewives? Surely we have more respect for people than that. And even if this sort of thing can sometimes be useful in seeking some commonality, it's just depressing to hear it being flaunted as a great, innovative development technique.