One of my favourite books as a twelve-year-old was called, “Just Don’t Make a Scene, Mum!” As you can guess, the “mum(s)” of the title used, frequently, to cause huge scenes: over poorly manufactured clothes, bad table service and rude shop assistants, but also over school bullies, teenage diets and sexist boyfriends.
It made me wonder if there has been a generational shift in women’s willingness to “make a scene.” The feminists of my own mother’s generation used to excel at them, and I had always assumed I would be similarly brave when required. However, a recent experience made me question this.
As a runner, I have become used to men keeping an ongoing commentary on my progress, with everything from the supportive (“Keep your knees up, love!”) to the inane (“I can see your bum”). I always thought I was preserving a dignified silence as I puffed along, pretending not to have heard.
But was I really maintaining an aloof distance, or was I simply too scared to confront them? Or, even worse, was I part of a generation of seemingly empowered ladettes who, in exchange for being honorary members of team “lad”, had agreed quietly to avoid challenging the misogyny underpinning it?
This summer, my attitude was suddenly changed when, on my morning run, I had worked up an admirable sweat. Puce-faced, I was on the final stretch, down the market street where I lived, and passed three bleary-eyed, polo-shirted men, on their way in the opposite direction, presumably to get a morning-after bacon roll from a local van.
As I scooted past, the bleariest of the man turned, saw me, and called out, “You must be hot, love,” before turning to his friend and adding, “but she doesn't look it.” Sniggers abounded.
My heart sank. I clearly looked hideous. I should have gone the long way round, avoiding offending the public eye with my sweaty, malodorous form. Sad and humiliated. I sped up, wanting to escape my public shame and get safely indoors.
And then I slowed my pace. I stopped. Suddenly, I turned around and headed back in the opposite direction.
Polo-shirt man wasn't getting away with it this time.
Fortuitously, he was still nearby, staggering amongst the stalls. I appeared at his elbow.
“Excuse me, mate,” I said, loudly and clearly enough to cause a few local ears to prick up.
“Hnnh?” said Polo-Shirt-Man, turning in confusion. He'd clearly intended his attack to be a hit-and-run. Why had I re-appeared?
I continued, even more clearly than before.
“When I'm running and you say things to me like, 'You must be hot but you don't look it,' it doesn't make you cool.”
Public interest was picking up. Polo-Shirt-Man looked at me in panic. What was going on?
“I know! I know it doesn't make me cool,” he stammered, looking wildly around him. Several people were looking at us. He had started to sweat. His friends had moved slightly away.
“Yes, it doesn't,” I agreed firmly. “It just makes you a tw*t.”
The watching market-stall men loved that.
“Yeah! That's right, love!” “You tell him, love!”
I turned around and jogged away, arms held up in a victory V, leaving Polo-Shirt-Man standing stupidly, mouth-agape. I was a hero, and Polo-Shirt-Man was public enemy number one.
I was struck, after this, by the unfathomable fact that I hadn't made a similar scene every time a man had tried to frighten, shame, mock or humiliate me. Looking to share my triumph, I headed to the Everday Sexism Blog, and was struck by how few similar stories of victory it contained. In fact, most of the entries could have been written by me, pre-Polo-Shirt-Man, and ended with the words, “but I didn't know what to do / didn’t want to cause a fuss / didn’t want to make a scene / didn’t want to upset people / felt so embarrassed so I never said anything.”
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that no-one can make you feel inferior without your consent. So frequently, we let people take our silence as our permission. Think of any woman you admire, even grudgingly. Sharon Osborne. Beyonce. The Queen. Caitlin Moran. Barbie. Your older sister. Your mum. Your old English teacher. The prefect you had a crush on at school. I hope you can’t imagine any of them silently accepting an instance of sexism.
Making a scene takes courage, because it is embarrassing. It makes the personal public, and that can be scary – what if the public disapprove? It can also potentially be dangerous. Your safety is always paramount. However, when the situation is safe, and the only thing at risk is personal pride, we owe it to ourselves and each other to end our stories of sexism not with an embarrassed silence, but with a triumphant shout of victory. The next time a Polo-Shirt-Man tries it on with you, make a scene – your mum would be proud.