Over the last few weeks, it feels as though the world is starting to wake up to the truth about what it’s really like to be a woman. We have a culture in which harassment and abuse are endemic, and abusers are supported and protected. We know that this affects women disproportionately, but it’s not a “woman problem” - it’s an everyone problem. In our offices, in our pubs and on Facebook, many smart, well-intentioned men are asking questions about how they can address this, whether they can fix this and what can they do to make this better.
I’ve spent a long time wondering how best to reply to this question, and today I have a kind of answer. Which is “maybe anything apart from what Keith Urban has just done.”
The country singer - and as there’s precious little to chuckle about here, let’s take a minute to giggle over the irony of being a man with his oeuvre who has the surname ‘Urban’ - has just performed his brand new song, called ‘Female’, which he wrote as a response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Now, I don’t want to be mean-spirited. Urban has a platform, and it is generous of him to use that platform to draw attention to a problem that affects millions of women all over the world. When you’re feeling frustrated and powerless, it makes sense to use your creative energies to channel that frustration, and to use your considerable skills to do something that you believe to be positive and helpful. However, my shoulders tensed as soon as I heard the title.
‘Female’ is a word I often find infuriating. It’s fine when David Attenborough uses it to describe the mating habits of a see-through fish. Not fine when it’s used by men in middle management who spit it out resentfully because they were forced to attend a seminar on sexual harassment after ‘an incident’ at a corporate dinner dance. It’s the sound of a man who is unable to separate a woman's sexuality from her humanity, and so chooses the most dehumanising word in the name of political correctness. When explaining the song (Oh, what’s that word for when a man explains something that’s bleeding obvious? I can’t think!) Urban said “[Female] just speaks to all of the females in my life, particularly. For a guy who grew up with no sisters in a house of boys, it’s incredible how now I’m surrounded by girls.” (Urban has two daughters with actress Nicole Kidman.)
Urban’s comments are helpful, because they have reminded me of some genuinely useful advice I have for all of the confused men out there. Please try to remember that women are human, and deserving of respect, without needing to realise, out loud, that your mother, sisters, daughters and nieces are women first. If your journey begins with you saying “I just remembered that the women I’m not legally allowed to have sex with are people too - and then I thought about how all women are daughters, with fathers who probably think of them as people!” then you have a long, long way to go.
Urban’s well meaning song is maddening because it points to a wider problem. Men have been conditioned to believe that they deserve prizes simply for showing up
On that theme, the chorus begins “Sister, shoulder, daughter, lover, Healer, broken halo, mother” and ends “Baby girl, woman child, Female.” Woman child? Woman child? Oh, Keith! I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up! Seriously, you have written a song about how women deserve respect and equal opportunities with a chorus in which women are defined by their relationship to other people, specifically about how they fulfil traditional, family oriented roles? If you’d called me I would have helped you to find a rhyme for “Doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist”.
Urban stokes my ire further by referencing Beyonce. “When you hear a song that they play saying you run the world, Do you believe it?” Now, Keith - if I may call you Keith - that song is not without its problems and contradictions, but do you know how positive and powerful it is for young women and girls to have “Who runs the world? GIRLS!” as an earworm? Don’t you think that when we’re constantly presented with messages and examples of how we emphatically don’t run the world, in that we’re really struggling to make the world work for us, that hearing a rebellious, contagiously catchy call to arms is more positively impactful than a song about how we are all sisters and mothers? More to the point, did you ask Beyonce whether it was OK to reference her song, or did you think that it was entirely reasonable to take the work of a woman of colour in order to promote your own music?
Urban goes on to ask “When somebody talks about how it was Adam first, Does that make you second best, Or did He save the best for last?” which is less of a song lyric and more of the sort of pick up line that I can imagine being delivered by a man in stonewashed jeans and a leather blouson jacket, who wants to buy me a sweet cinzano from a rural hotel bar after I’ve drunkenly wandered off from a wedding. Also, if you want to talk about why you support women, don’t cite the Bible! Women come off really badly in the Bible!
The status quo is, I hope, shifting. Sexism is universal and endemic, and it affects all women, every day. It affects men too. I believe that our bravery, our loudness and our anger is becoming choral and powerful enough to effect change. I also believe that it’s painful for men to be forced to wake up to their privilege, to try to comprehend the horrors experienced by people that they love and to be told, every day, that they are the problem, when many of them probably want to be the solution.
However, Urban’s well meaning song is maddening because it points to a wider problem. Many men have been conditioned to believe that they deserve points and prizes simply for showing up to feminist causes. This is probably because we've reached a point where the appalling treatment of women is so normalised that acknowledging women don't deserve such treatment should win you a prize. If you want to be an ally, you need to listen before you speak, try to understand instead of trying to explain, and try to see women as people before defining them by the emotional labour that they supply in your life. And please never, ever, ever refer to us as ‘females’. Thank you.