Like a lot of women, I’ve been sexually harassed more than once. A man squeezed my buttock in a lift in a Tube station; a drunk man clutched the back of my head and tried to force me to kiss him outside a club; and my driving instructor “accidentally” touched my knee and breasts on several occasions (I was 17).
There are incidents where men who were known to me attempted to coax me to have sex with them using what I considered to be persistent and aggressive verbal persuasion, as well as non-consensual touching.
And then there’s the time when I was a young teenager that I heard, through the wall that separated my brother’s bedroom from mine, a friend of his describing how a mutual acquaintance had raped her. She said she wouldn’t take it to court because she didn’t want her sexual history scrutinised. I was not the victim, but it broke my heart all the same.
So, naturally, I was gripped by Eléonore Pourriat’s short film of 2010, Oppressed Majority, which attracted interest in the national press after it went viral this week. The film follows Pierre, a vulnerable man in a woman’s world. He’s objectified by lascivious women, who comment on his bum and openly piss in the street. He expresses concern to a friend whose wife has asked him to wear a balaclava, because God wills him to be modest.
Humorous at first due to the novelty of the role reversals, the film shifts into more serious territory as Pierre is held at knife-point and raped by a gang of women, one of whom threatens to bite off his penis. Pierre is then confronted by a female police officer who treats his complaint with scepticism, before being picked up by his wife who accuses him of dressing in too provocative a way. “I dress the way I want,” protests poor Pierre.
My immediate response was that some parts of the film rang brilliantly true – the disgust invoked by the woman urinating in the alleyway (why should anybody be allowed to do this?), the odd double standard exposed by the topless woman runner (in real life, men can whip out their nipples without any particular reason, but women are sometimes made to feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding in public). But I also felt that some parts strayed into the arena of unlikelihood or unrepresentativeness.
In reality, most rapes of women are committed not by strangers but by men known to the victim (this fact is important since the idea that only violent rape by a stranger “counts” causes some rape victims to blame themselves). And it perhaps isn’t true that a majority of women are daily subjected to the kind of intense and relentless sexual comment that Pierre attracts in the film. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, just that it is not my experience or an experience that has been expressed to me by friends. I encounter a lot of men in my daily life who do not objectify or demean me.
Pourriat herself explained in an interview that she doesn’t intend the film to be altogether realistic; but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about what I perceived to be an exaggeration. The truth to me is that sexism against women is normalised, entrenched, insidious; and, crucially, is not always performed loudly in the streets under the cold light of day. At least we have laws in place to attempt to tackle incidents of physical or verbal harassment, even if they are sometimes unenforced.
What worries me just as much is the silent, accepted, subtle, totally legal kind of portrayal of women that is played out every day in every part of Europe. The media is a particular culprit, and very difficult to tackle. According to studies, we see at least 247 marketing images every single day – meaning females are pretty constantly and silently spoken to by adverts depicting them as glossy collections of sexy limbs, avid buyers of clothes, and voracious consumers of chocolate – the ones who need a whole lot of washing powder and a weekly shop at Iceland to be complete. I’m talking about the casual objectification of Page 3 models. The unthinking airbrushing of women’s mag front covers. The Daily Mail sidebar of shame.
It’s hard to talk back to a condescending advert or an article that compares the dress sense of party leaders’ wives. It’s hard to explain that I think many supposedly “feminine” qualities and interests are learned from society, not inherent. And that “female” skills (caring and communication, for example) are consistently and silently undervalued and underpaid. This stuff I find almost as distressing as the loud, obvious stuff depicted in the film (the stuff I have personally experienced, too), because they seem to be two sides of the same ugly coin – one a symptom, and one an environment that allows the symptoms to become manifest.
But there aren’t many highly successful, well-viewed feminist films that are as striking in concept or ambitious in scope as Pourriat’s. I don’t think it’s a perfect piece of work, but it is still a good and thought-provoking contribution. I was struck by how much I invested in her film – how I expected for a short time after viewing it that it ought to be able to say everything. “What about the gender pay gap? What about Twitter trolling and online misogyny? Wife-beaters? Anorexia and fat issues? Access to abortion?”
It was then that I realised this nine-minute clip – this breath of fresh air – could not possibly do all these things for me. The fact that I wanted it to just says that there aren’t enough films like it making it big in the public sphere. I’d like to see more.