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An Open Letter to the Neanderthals of New Zealand

Samantha Lee
Samantha Lee

We live in a society where women are constantly told that we are too fat, too thin, too hairy, too wrinkled, not moisturised enough, too pale, too "ethnic", overly-tanned, not edgy enough, over-dressed, too muscly, too flabby, too tall, too short, not a ten, too slutty, too frigid, too demure, too polite, too bold, too blonde, not sexy enough, too quiet, too loud.

On and on and on and on.

It becomes background noise in a world where the only constant message is we are too much, or not enough.

It’s hardly surprising that when a woman announced that she would be pregnant while working recently, that the Neanderthals came out to play.

Too hormonal. Too immoral. Too decisive. Too baby-brained. Too split-focussed. Too many concessions to be made. Too little consultation with men, the rightful owners of power and privilege.

Too many men, who weighed in on a decision that was not theirs.

Too many men, holding forth on a decision that impacts their lives not one iota.

The message was, men deserve to have input here. To make pronouncements about women’s bodies, and what they do with them. To evaluate the decisions that women make about their own lives through the narrow-minded prism of male privilege. To pontificate endlessly about what she should have done, what you would have done. The message is, women are not separate beings with their own agency – women exist to serve men’s desires, and comply with the things men think that women should do.

Trust me, Neandethals of New Zealand, when I say it’s not us.

It’s you.

It’s you, and the fact your privilege allows you to think that you have agency over women’s bodies. It’s why you feel quite free to make pronouncements about women’s sexual preferences, about whether she was asking for it, about whether her clothing, or lack of it, made her an inevitable target. About whether a woman has the capacity, in your not-so-humble opinion, to have a family and to work at the same time.

A qualifier here, for the inevitable “not-all-men and yes-some-women” team who feel compelled to point out that everything has an exception that proves the rule, in order to avoid a comment where the only appropriate response will be an eye-roll emoji.

Yes. There has been an outpouring from men (and women) who are one hundred percent thrilled that Jacinda Ardern is pregnant, who have made zero comments insinuating that she is no longer up to the task as Prime Minister because she happens to be pregnant and who are genuinely stoked for someone else’s good fortune.

Equally, there have been some women who are projecting their own lived experience, or are suffering from a severe case of internalised misogyny, who have made pronouncements that “she can’t do both” or “the child will suffer” and other such nonsense.

I am talking specifically to the men who think their sexist opinion holds water, but unfortunately, it's actually the opinion that gets the ten second stare from Khaleesi from Game of Thrones, right before she orders that opinion to be fed to her dragons.

Let me say it clearly. If Jacinda Arden decides to get a full sleeve tattoo on her arm of the cast of Friends, that is no one’s business. Equally, if Jacinda Ardern decides that her wardrobe will now consist of the most eye-poppingly awful fluroscent combinations in the history of the world, that is also no one’s business. If Jacinda Ardern decides that actually she will now take up jaffa racing in Dunedin of a Thursday evening, that is no one’s business. And if Jacinda Ardern decides that she’s going to carry around a human being inside of her, while simultaneously being Prime Minister, that is no one’s business.

If you're not a Neanderthal, you can wish her and her family well, and no doubt join the many reckoners out there already gleefully contemplating baby names, taking votes on Head Aunty, or fretting about what to get the Prime Minister who has everything for her baby shower. (Guys, I am personally voting for Helen Clark, and maybe we do a Secret Santa - Baby edition, with all proceeds to the actual Aunties charity?)

Or, you can show yourself to be that person that women talk about in corners. The one we warn each other about, where we say in low voices "he's not as nice as he pretends to be." We see you. We can spot you a mile off in a hurricane.

You can show yourself as a misogynistic asshole, of the same redneck ilk and breed as the ones who currently occupy The White House in America.

Believe me, there is not much distance between a man who would like ownership over women installed in the halls of power, and the man on the street who has somehow come to the conclusion that men like him are being done a profound injustice because a woman in power happens to do something innocuous that inconceivably scares the beejeezus out of him.

Both have fear, and control as their common denominator, and empathy and the ability to listen, learn, and grow from their place of ignorance, nowhere to be found.

The world is changing much quicker than we might imagine, and I often wonder, when men of the Neanderthal persuasion come out to play, how they have reached the conclusion that women are capable of so little.

How, seeing women feed their families on a fraction of the wage men earn (and women of colour on a fraction of what white women earn), how, growing up in households where a woman’s role was to work eight hours a day and then spend the rest of their time on childcare, how, where household labour is still nowhere near divided evenly, and at a time when #metoo stories are everywhere and #timesup is in the news daily, and the experience out of all of the women in their lives means that statistically some, if not all, of them have been assaulted or treated misogynistically in some way, they can say that women are not tough, smart, resilient, resourceful, and above all, masters of working within the confines of a society that sees them as second-class citizens?

Neanderthals, I beg of you, and I know how uncomfortable and challenging it can be, but listen to women. Listen hard.

Because, actually, you are not Neanderthals. You are, most often, good old Kiwi blokes. You are young, and old. You are National supporters, and Labour voters. You are from different backgrounds, walks of life. You live in poverty. You have immigrated last week. You have lived in New Zealand your entire life. You are happily married. You are divorced. You are men with power, and men with opinions that others follow. You are leaders, and writers, and artists, and city slickers and farmers. You are men with money, with privilege, and men whose opinions are often reflected back at you by the company you grew up in, and the company you keep now. You are men who don't see any need whatsoever to speak up, or even bat an eyelid, when you see other men behaving in a way that is sexist. You are men who benefit from a society where sexism is normal. You are men who love your families deeply. You are men who are making sexist statements while at the same time being a father to your son, or daughter, or a husband to your wife.

You are men who are living in a country where domestic violence is the worst in the developed world, and you are men who are failing to see the link between the way women are treated publically, and privately.

The only thing that the woman who announced her pregnancy, and her maternity leave, and her intention to continue to do her job has to be concerned about is her baby, and her partner, and her job. Reckons on her ability to do her job are out of touch, sexist, and frankly, just gross.

Sexism has long been acceptable in New Zealand, but men, reasonable, logical, sensible men with reckons that should long have been thrown away with 1950's attitudes about just how powerful women are, please know that the Neanderthal in your head needs to stay there, because that dude's time?

It's now up.


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