Dangerous Jobs for Girls: Thoughts on Equality and Liberation.

// 31 July 2008

Intrigued by Barbara’s post and the ensuing comments, I caught up with Dangerous Jobs for Girls. Its merits were very similar to those of the old Channel 4 show Faking It: we see individuals taken out of their comfort zone and areas of expertise rising to entirely new challenges, and impressively so. In this episode, Laura, Nicola and Gemma (hello if you’re reading!), all highly successful women in their respective fields – law, show jumping and business – joined a group of Brazilian cowboys to learn the tricks of the herd driving trade.

Perhaps the “girls” can shed some light on this, but while the cowboys understandably didn’t expect the women to do too well after just ten days’ training, the stereotypical chauvinistic comments made by some appeared to be put on for the camera, and the admiration they expressed at the end of the programme after the women successfully herded a group of over 300 cattle across the plains more or less unaided was certainly neither begrudging nor insincere.

The voice over (male, of course) was pretty irritating – if I point out that it was deemed necessary to highlight that successful barrister (Dr) Laura was single (cue knowing nods from Daily Mail readers) you get the general impression. However, I have no real beef with the show – it’s just reality TV entertainment after all. Yet it did highlight some important issues: why this constant need to prove that women are just as good as men? Why strive so hard to be accepted by men in their world and on their terms? Isn’t it time to take a step back and start questioning the core values which underpin not only society as a whole but also some areas of feminism?

Most people will tell you that feminism is about equality. But, as French feminist Luce Irigaray astutely asks in Je, Tu, Nous, equality to whom? To men? If we hold up men, and therefore the patriarchal masculine roles, qualities and values as woman’s ultimate goal, then what becomes of woman? In Helen’s recent post on the gender estimator, reader Snuffles admitted to a momentary feeling of disappointment at being told she was more female than male, and I for one can certainly add my voice to that admission. Men – man’s traditional roles, man’s past times, man’s strengths – are viewed as infinitely cooler, more worthwhile, more important than women and women’s traditional roles, past times, qualities and values. As Julia Serano highlights in the excellent Whipping Girl (which I’m only half way through – more on this soon), femininity – be it patriarchal, natural, innate, constructed, individual, performative – is thoroughly devalued in our society.

When I was younger, I wanted to be a boy for these very reasons. I was never prevented from doing anything or behaving in any way because I was a girl, yet I knew it was much cooler to be a boy. As I grew up – and particularly when I found feminism – I learnt to reconcile my identity as a woman with what society would view as the more masculine aspects of my personality, and I realised that being a woman couldn’t just mean xyz if I was w: I didn’t need to deny or belittle my sex in order to be who I am. Yet I still catch myself trying to be one of the guys, to prove that I’m no different from them – just as good as them, just as worthwhile as them, in the areas they deem to be important – because I’m still subject to the deeply ingrained teaching that men are simply better than women.

We all know that’s not true. So instead of trying to prove ourselves, to gain recognition from the man on his terms, to fit into his world, to be equal to him, I say let’s be who we want to be, make the world we want to live in, with the values we hold dear, and let’s work towards genuine liberation for everyone – women and men – from the constraints of the patriarchal gender system and the sexist values that support it.*

In short, forget equality: can I get an L…?

*Just want to make it clear that I’m not in any way directing this at the women who took part in Dangerous Jobs for Girls – I couldn’t do what you did! – the show’s concept just lead me down this train of thought.

Extremely cool pre-1922 Cowgirl photo by Heather Green Photography, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

Carathe // Posted 31 July 2008 at 10:39 pm

Hmmm. I enjoyed the programme – stayed up WAY past my bedtime to watch it :-) – and felt that essentially, the women did great. I know I couldn’t have done that, and nor could many men doing ordinary office jobs, as many people pointed out in the other piece.

While I agree that women should not *have* to compete on men’s terms, if they *want* to, why shouldn’t they? Yeah I would love to see reality TV programmes where men are challenged to do traditionally feminine jobs…but…many men still think of women as weaker and just not as good (cf. one guy I was arguing with on t’Internet who insisted that women cannot lug his mighty 15 stone frame out of a burning building so cannot be firefighters, er, hello are all male firefighters 15 st?! no it’s about TECHNIQUE!) so you know, if women can prove we can do these “macho” jobs, I say, it’s all to the good.

chem_fem // Posted 31 July 2008 at 11:20 pm

Great post!

I agree they did an amazing job, and i liked the level of banter they gave the cowboys.

I felt the show gave Laura a hard time that wasn’t deserved considering she (as with all the women) was out of her comfort zone doing something new.

Ruth Moss // Posted 1 August 2008 at 10:01 am

Thanks for this blog post. I am really interested in the difference between “equality” and “liberation” feminism.

Jessica // Posted 1 August 2008 at 11:21 am

I’m interested in what you wrote about wanting to be a boy because men were simply seen as being “better” than women.

I had a similar experience growing up. Although I was certainly not told by my family that boys and girls were unequal, I read many old fashioned boys’ own stories. (Step forward Rider Haggard and HG Wells.) It was rather a long time later that I truly realised that I wouldn’t grow up to be a 19th century landed gentleman. I felt, and still do feel, that the term “woman” is not a good fit for who I am. I think this is because I am, first and foremost, human. The fact that I am female comes second.

I completely recognise what you say about “I still catch myself trying to be one of the guys, to prove that I’m no different from them – just as good as them, just as worthwhile as them”. However, I disagree that this is because a “deeply ingrained teaching that men are simply better than women”. I think it’s because there is a deeply ingrained teaching that men are the norm, and that women are unusual, different, not the norm. I think there is a deeply ingrained teaching that to be male is to be human, and that somehow to be female is to be a different species.

The “norm” is not the same as “better”, although it can have the same effect. I think a deeply ingrained belief that men are the norm is subtler than one that they are better, and possibly harder to dispel. I suppose we just have to remind ourselves that whatever statistical differences there may be between the two genders, we’re human first, male or female second.

Is that equality feminism or liberation feminism?

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 1 August 2008 at 12:16 pm

As a full time mother I can heartily agree that the loss of status that comes from being in a ‘traditionally’ ‘feminine’ sphere – which is important work – is one of the hardest things about being a mother.

I’ve always felt glad to be a girl, though. Even though sometimes just because it means I can wear any combination of dresses, skirts and trousers without attracting (too many) funny looks.

Sabre // Posted 1 August 2008 at 12:53 pm

I never wanted to be a boy. I think that for me, I don’t actually want to be male but I do so want the privileges that males seem to get automatically. I think that’s what people often mistake for penis envy!

I used to really look down on housewives and that attitude did stem from the lack of respect given to them by society and by the fact that I realised how dissatisfied my own mother was with it. Like so many daughters I looked down on her for not being the role model I wanted her to be. That’s changed now.

Growing up I veered from being very girly and feminine to being quite boyish and rejecting all things girly. I still have trouble balancing the two sides, because the world does not make it easy to just be a human, you HAVE to be a man or woman and stay within a defined expectation of what that is. Luckily things are changing!

Laura // Posted 1 August 2008 at 5:40 pm

Really interesting points, Jessica, I hadn’t thought about it like that.

chem_fem – definitely agree the programme makers were far too harsh on Laura – trying to fit her into the model they want to present each week, no doubt.

Ellie // Posted 1 August 2008 at 10:12 pm

I enjoyed the program and was pleased that the girls they sent out could ride well already.

Growing up I definately saw myself as a tomboy. I much prefered doing the things boys got to do like woodwork and karate. I was often patronised but it washed over me as my parents supported me in whatever i wanted.

Now i’m older i get to fly Aeroplanes for a living and feel like I can do what I enjoy but embrace my feminine side too. I’ll never be a girly girl but i’m glad that i managed to find a balance for myself.

Jacob (Compassionate Jobs for Men!) // Posted 2 August 2008 at 1:26 am

(I’m a male; I never really wanted to be another sex, but I used to really resent how girls in school were always talked about so saintly and we were always told how naughty we were. I suppose that I could either have wished I was one, or, as I did, wished that we could be treated the same.)

For me the phrase that pokes at my sides is “as good”,

It just states that men are the “good” and that the aim is to fill the gap between women and “good”, nothing beyond. However, both due to the idea that nothing is absolute and because the language used doesn’t allow for being “better”, it means that, according to how we speak, women will always to fall short. The content claims to fight for equality but the packaging just reeks of the opposite.

Why is maleness a standard for competence anyway? And why should shows like this suggest that we need to even put women to the test?

I still think that the problems are not that women need to somehow prove they can reach the glowing trophy of maleness, but that we, far too often, encourage men and women to be opposites, and assign them opposite attributes. So that a lot of people feel they’re compromising their gender whenever they do the masculine thing, or the feminine thing. For women to ever possess masculine concepts like power, men need to reclaim the typically feminine concept of compassion. It’s men who need to allow women access and to bring both qualities to the center of the continuum. Female empowerment requires male “caringness” *Stops babbling*

One other thing I wonder is what sort of show would this have made if the women had not succeeded? Would the producers have allowed it, if they’re making out that this is a triumph for equality, would they have allowed a defeat to be broadcasted? And if not, does that make it a very unfair bit of babying of women?

I don’t doubt that they wanted this show to be good for women, but I think making it appear that women need proof, is not cooool.

David Space // Posted 2 August 2008 at 1:59 am

I thought the same things about this programme. I didn’t think the riding looked particularly hard so there was no reson why such accomplished horsewomen shouldn’t have been able to do it. But forging into that river was something else!

There’s a danger in this series for both women and men though – if the women screw up it implies they can’t do men’s jobs. But if they imply just anyone can show up and do these jobs with a few days training, it could be pretty insulting to the people who spend their lives training for them. It was a pretty good balance this week but I think someone’s bound to end up feelign insulted!

Barnaby Dawson // Posted 3 August 2008 at 9:21 am

This post brings up a point about how we define our feminism. For me fighting discrimination is firstly about treating people on the basis of their behaviour, their talents and their abilities not on those of any group (the averages) to which they belong. Secondly it is about not allowing the association of a behaviour, talent or ability with some group to determine how we value it. Applied to feminism in this context this means that we shouldn’t treat people differently based on their sex and that we shouldn’t hold sporting ability (in traditional sports) to be important just because on average men are better at it.

I would argue that sporting ability is (A) measured in ways that benefit men on average (B) given much more importance in society than it deserves.

So firstly we should create new sports and ways of measuring (or avoiding measuring) success at them that are less gendered and secondly we should try to reduce the perceived value of physical prowess in society.

Danielle // Posted 3 August 2008 at 10:26 am

“‘It’s like that in the Watch too,’ said Angua. ‘You can be any sex you like provided you act male.'”

– Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett

Ellie - a different one though // Posted 4 August 2008 at 2:19 pm

I largely agree with all of the comments here, but also wanted to add that I enjoy being ‘masculine’, for me, i am not trying to compete with men on their terms, i just like the stuff thats traditionally associated with men, it doesn’t mean its any less mine cus of this history.

I wouldn’t want to stop acting masculine just because it might be a product of patriarchy and androcentrism, I don’t want to be feminine because thats not who I am. If you want to act masculine then do it, you don’t ned to call yourself a tomboy or tell yourself off for trying to compete with men, you just need to live how you feel.

Laura // Posted 6 August 2008 at 5:23 pm

Hello All!

Thank you for the sympathy! I’m very glad to see that people thought the programme was harsh towards me! I’m sorry to say that it didn’t reflect my experience at all, and of course they cut out my lasooing of the wild foal, our toppling of the calves, us getting up at 4am to do the milking, and the myriad other tasks where we did just fine.

However, I can cope with looking like I can’t scrutinise cows (even thought it’s not exactly a difficult task, however I was presented!), but what I was very disappointed about what this: the programme wasn’t about gender issues at all. I specifically asked if I could speak to some local women to discuss gender issues, what they thought of us going out there trying to do what was thought to be ‘men’s work’ and what they considered their ‘roles’ to be and why. This was actually facilitated and on camera…yet the editors excluded it. I also wonder why my marital status was relevant in any way whatsoever! Despite being sold to us as a programme about gender, on our return the production company had posted that we were sent out to compete against each other. Indeed, that’s how the programme presented us, but it couldn’t be further from the truth, as in fact we worked together as a team. Apart from one scene towards the end when the other 2 girls commented on (I think) my ‘herding’ skills, in fact they (on camera) stood up for me and told Julinio that I’d been doing well, reacting just as quickly, etc. It doesn’t instil in me much trust of the media!

So I will watch tonight’s episode with interest, but I’m very sorry indeed that gender issues weren’t explored in ours. There was plenty of scope for an interesting ‘reality’-type programme; one which actually had some content, but instead the editors chose frothy and inconsequential selective editing and made a programme about me being unable to look at cows for longer than a few seconds without being distracted, and Nicola being a non-team player and jealous of anyone in a leadership role! Neither of these were true, and neither of these storylines were as remotely interesting as our true daily life out there. What a pity!

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