Whenever someone tells me that sexism is basically over and feminism is a relic (and trust me, it happens) my brain tries to do a spit take inside my skull. This is one of the stranger head sensations to experience, so the look I give these people isn’t so much anger or irritation as utter discomfort. Because my brain is doing really weird things in that moment.
Because they’re so infuriatingly wrong, see.
I get it. When you start examining sexism you often end up confronting not-so-fun subjects like abuse, sexual assault, workplace politics, pesky healthcare dilemmas, or that old “body image” chestnut that feminists trot out to try to get us to stop looking at women in bikinis. And if you really think hard you’ll find it hard to avoid looking at other unsettling things too: racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. and then your whole day will be taken up having to think about how and why you’re privileged. Laaaaaaame.*
And very few people have all the possible privileges at once, so it’s easy to get caught up in the “Well things aren’t easy for any of us, little camper. But I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got, and you should too!” fallacy and start arguing that, for instance, sexism doesn’t exist because you are a short man, and height discrimination is very real.
It all gets complicated and messy, you know?
But you know what’s not messy? Popular music! And you know what’s not complicated? Numbers! And you know what perfectly parries any claims that sexism is dead in Western culture? NME’s Greatest Singers of All Time poll! Observe.
On NME’s website, readers are asked to rate various singers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, mostly in the pop, rock, and R&B genres, from one to ten. The selection ranges from Art Garfunkle to Beyonce to Mike Skinner (the garage hip hop phenomenon The Streets) to Patti Smith to Al Green. There are more male nominees, but not overwhelmingly.
So far (as of Tuesday afternoon in my time zone) two women have made it into the top twenty. Monday it was just Aretha Franklin, but Tuesday morning I noticed Janice Joplin had made it to the #20 spot (so maybe by the time this entry posts we’ll have three women on the list). And I think that’s fucked up, not because I think Joni Mitchell should necessarily appear above Kurt Cobain (although one could certainly make an argument for that), but because 18-2 cannot be an accidental, random, “just the way things worked out” ratio. It has to mean something.
(as of Tuesday 6/7/11 1:00PM EST)
If a great preponderance of people agree that men are better at something that’s totally subjective and impossible to quantify outside of pure taste, it means we’ve basically just decided we like women less. We might not really even know why, exactly, but they’re just not as good. Does this seem freshly tapped from the very essence of sexism to anyone else?
There is a problem. Sexism is not over. It is not mass hysteria. It is not liberal brainwashing. And feminism is me, as a woman, wanting to not have to deal with that vague, visceral dismissal of my work, or body, or voice, or abilities. There is a problem. And which singers we all like best is really the least of it, yes, but it’s an easy thing to point out and say: “Now tell me more about this post-sexist world we’re living in, please?”
That said, I still can’t really think of a better singer than Freddie Mercury.
* You thought I forgot ableism, didn’t you?