This summer my mother read one of the great classics of Spainish XIXth century literature: “La Regenta” by Leopoldo Arias Clarín. Over this same period, I watched Lena Dunham’s award-winning series “Girls”. The two of us have spent a few late evenings, chatting and comparing notes on the two, in Madrid’s sweltering heat.
Meanwhile, the international media have spent all summer debating burkini’s, and cultural Spanish traditions were tainted by a filmed gang-rape in Pamplona, among other sexual aggressions. So what’s going on with women? Have we advanced as much as we’d like to think? Are we really, really free?
What a mess. As a woman it’s really hard to say whether we’ve changed substantially or only just redecorated our lives. Nearly two hundred years separate Clarín’s female character, Ana Ozores, from Dunham’s fictional incarnation of herself as Hannah. Ana married a socially convenient husband and lives in a small provincial town called Vetusta. Hannah has confused sexual relationships with a number of young men in Manhattan, while pursuing a writing career. Both women long for something they can’t quite define.
It’s fascinating to realize that two centuries ago women still had to marry as an act of economic survival in Spain. When Ana, whose close confidant is – of course! – the town priest, eventually falls prey to the local womanizer, the entire city gangs up against her. Women around her seem to be chosen by destiny to live one of two lives: A live-in maid who is expected to silently comply with their male bosses’ sexual desires (both fathers AND young sons) or a wife who is morally superior, yet sexually frustrated and professionally irrelevant.
Hannah, on the contrary, has so much sexual freedom she doesn’t know quite what to do with it. Her three friends are no better. Explicit sex and revealing nudes populate every episode. Hannah is at once refreshing, endearing, disturbing and hilarious. She continuously rants about her unconventional body type – and yes, she does show it off to the camera in all kinds of sexy lingerie. She defends feminist ideals and complains about how men try to shut women up. She then proceeds to run back to her clumsy and socially inept boyfriend for comfort. Despite all the apparent freedom to be herself, she’s still under lots of social pressure to have a nicer body, get married (to the right guy!), have beautiful kids and be successful at her job.
And now back to the filmed gang-rape by five, twenty-something-year-old boys from Seville, during a night of booze during Pamplona’s Saint Fermin celebrations. They picked up a girl and walked her to her car. As they passed an open doorway, and in their drunken logic, they pushed the girl inside and used a mobile phone to record the cheering violence that ensued. Sexual aggression seems to be more frequent over the summer’s many festivals and celebrations across Spain. They were normal boys. One of them was studying to become a police officer. What got into them? Do they believe the porn they watch is what real women want?
Hundreds of articles have raved over the liberty or oppression that a burkini represents on a European beach. We European women feel very free because we can wear whatever we want.
We condemn Muslim and Arab women because they need to wear a veil or cover their entire bodies to play sports at the Olympics or swim in a pool. But… we fret about our own bodies all day long. We feel too fat, too short or too old to be accepted into a society that worships a very specific set of measurements. If this is freedom maybe we should all wear a burkini and be happy nobody is staring at our cellulite or gossiping about our sagging tummies. Would a burkini have protected girls from sexual assaults during the festive summer nights in Spain or even on an American campus?
Women’s forums love to criticize men as enforcers of limitations to our freedom. But do men really have so much power over us? Or are there too many women contributing to the demonizing of the female body in its wild, tumultuous imperfection? Are the women’s magazines we go to for inspiration and learning pushing us to be morally superior, stylishly slim, “lean-in,” multi-faceted mothers, sexually proficient lovers and industry-dominant CEOs? Have we honestly advanced as much as we think we have, or do we suffer as much pressure and judgment as Ana Ozores did in little Vetusta back in 1885?
Taryn Brumfitt is currently promoting her debut documentary “Embrace” because she doesn’t want her daughter to be part of the 91% of women who hate their bodies. A hundred women were asked for one word to express how they felt about their bodies. Responses ranged from disgusting, to loathing, fat, wobbly, stumpy, geriatric, gross or imperfect. They were all free women from the most advanced western societies. Free to hate their bodies. Free to hate themselves. Free to feel as marginalized and misunderstood as XXIst century Hannah and XIXth century Ana Ozores.
There is something deeply wrong in the way we all approach womanhood in today’s global awareness.
We have this awful, hidden lack of respect or appreciation for the amazing fountain of abundant fertility, sexual pleasure, motherly love and creative efficiency that is a woman. We’ve become mortally accustomed to brutalizing it, starving it, abusing it, criticizing it, buying and selling it, aesthetically altering it and hating it.
Maybe we’ve forgotten what a woman is supposed to be. Maybe we’ve killed, raped, lynched and witch-hunted every single female leader there ever was in our quest to impose great civilizations and technology over primitive tribes. Maybe we’re all wearing a highly-sophisticated cultural version of a burkini after all.
If this summer’s news is what female advancement and progress look like… we’re going to have to stop kidding ourselves and get real. Stop telling other women what to do or wear, and focus on what we’re doing as women that’s enabling the sale of our freedom at far too cheap a price.