Let’s not put women in boxes, even if they have been updated for 2018

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A new book identifies “tribes” of women, from Alpha to Altruist. It’s not a useful way to think about an entire gender, says Poorna Bell

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By Poorna Bell on

I wrote a list the other day of boxes I might tick on some imaginary census survey. Single, widow, aunt, atheist, daughter, Indian, British. While each of these things is true about me, those boxes don’t define me.

They don’t tell you about my dating preferences, how much kindness I’m capable of or why I no longer believe in God. That’s because the boxes are the world’s way of trying to make sense of me in a way it can understand. It’s not who I necessarily am.

I’d be mortified if someone made a set of assumptions about who I was based on those labels, versus understanding that I’m a multi-layered, human onion. And not just make assumptions, but draw huge generalisations about what I must like, what drives me and, worst of all, what kind of woman I am.

Yet that is something the advertising and media business loves doing and a new book, New Female Tribes: Shattering Female Stereotypes And Redefining Women Today, seems to be doing just that.

The book is getting a lot of attention in the press, offering a new set of templates for women. And because it’s backed by some admittedly impressive research spanning five years, 8,000 women and 19 countries, these templates are being accepted without question, with catchy headlines such as “What Tribe Are You?”

According to the study, there are four main tribes: the Alphas, who focus on work; the Hedonists, who focus on pleasure and self-development; the Traditionalists, who focus on the home and children; and the Altruists, who focus on community and the environment. Under that, there are 16 other tribes and women can be a mix of different ones.

Although author Rachel Pashley is at pains to point out that she didn’t write the book to create yet another set of stereotypes for women, it slightly feels like being led down a ramp that you think is the gate to liberation, but is actually just a different part of the abattoir. Where are the working-class women? LGBTQ+ representation? Black and minority-ethnic women?

We’re cougars if we date someone younger, we’re leftovers if we haven’t got married after a particular age

They aren’t there because it is impossible to neatly package up and understand an entire gender and I don’t think women are buying this any more. If anything, the global movements around #MeToo, Say Her Name and the Women’s March – as well as the resounding success of films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther – have taught us that women seek commonality of the sisterhood globally, rather than looking for narrow definitions of themselves.

Women are just not that simple, no matter how much the advertising industry would like us to be. We are fiery phoenixes who deserve more than being caged by labels. When I think of the women in my life – and I include myself in this – we are so incredibly complex not just because of our current drives or ambition but because of our history, something no study can properly capture.

Both my Indian grandmothers had love marriages with their night-school teachers. One travelled the world with her husband; another raised her four children alone after being widowed. My mother had an arranged marriage, didn’t have a university degree. She also recovered from major heart surgery at 19, ended up working for the government, had two kids and can bicep-curl more than an average 30-year-old.

I’m an ex-goth who was also obsessed with Ricky Martin, a Home Counties kid who moved to London at 18, got married, became widowed, lives alone, dates people of no particular age or race. Where do we fit into those tribes?

We aren’t interested in being put in a box, yet that hasn’t stopped advertisers and the media from trying to do this for decades. We’re cougars if we date someone younger, we’re leftovers if we haven’t got married after a particular age, we’re “beauty witches” if we care about looking youthful – when does it stop?

They have been trying to second-guess our choices, tell us what we think we want and, when that hasn’t worked, be our pal and say that they understand us. But if they really wanted to understand us, they’d stop trying to look at us as labels on a PowerPoint presentation. What we want is storytelling and empowerment – we no longer want to be told who we are because it fits a catchy headline or helps to sell a product.

Pashley says women require definition because “language is currency” and identifying these tribes is better than the current female templates the ad world works to, which is “busy working mum” or “sassy and single”. But I think women deserve better than the “lesser of two evils” option.

Language may be currency, but language can also be used to impose boundaries and liberate. If I had to be defined, I’d rather it was by my humanity and empathy, and that the complexity of women was simply acknowledged and reflected in storytelling. That, for me, is liberation. Anything else is simply labouring under the guise of freedom – it’s just another box for me to tick.


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