Mary Mc Gill is a journalist, a Hardiman scholar at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where she is a contributing lecturer at the Centre for Global Women’s Studies. Mary’s TedX talk based on her research is a real eye-opener on how the current cultural climate views young women and their engagement with the selfie phenomenon. Mary kindly gave me an hour of her time and we chatted about her work on contemporary feminist culture, how far we’ve come and crucially, the work that is as yet uncompleted..
Siún: There’s so much I want to ask you about your research on the selfie. I often see the hashtag #shamelessselfie being bandied about, I feel like shame manages to tack itself on to everything related to the female experience in Ireland..
Mary: When it comes to the question of shame, women are stuck in an impossible bind. On the one hand, there is this expectation: you should be attractive, sexually available, up for it… all of those things. On the other hand, you should be pure too. It’s the Madonna-Whore complex and it’s ridiculous. It shifts and it changes throughout history but there are still very limiting ideas about what is acceptable for a woman. Shame is a very real thing in Ireland, which is unsurprising given how powerful the Catholic Church was for most of the 20th century. I think all of us, unfortunately, have blind spots, whether it’s towards ourselves or towards other women. The culture encourages it. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking back and feeling like I’ve come full circle in relation to my work and my research. Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth introduced me to the idea of women’s bodies as sites where all kinds of cultural narratives are played out, often with very damaging effects. I read it when I was about sixteen and it had a massive impact on me. Wolf looks at how women and girls are told to aspire to the ideals of beauty and how harmful that aspiration ultimately is. The beauty myth is about power, control and profiting from our insecurities, at the root of which is the issue of shame. It should be mandatory reading in secondary schools.
S: How do you feel like women are represented online?
M:I have a very ambivalent attitude towards the internet. It is an amazing tool. In terms of feminism, it provides community, support and access in a way that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. For people who don’t see themselves represented in mainstream media it is massively important – and that is the very best of it. But I also think there are very negative aspects to it, not least of which are companies who make massive profits from people’s personal content and their engagement and then do so little to protect their privacy, to look after those who have been harassed. I’m all for freedom of speech online but it has to be balanced with people’s right to inhabit these spaces in peace. Those who harass people offline are not tolerated and it should be the same online. The internet can be a great place for some things, nuanced debate is not one of them, particularly if you are a woman. Critique and debate are such important things but there can sometimes be a real nasty pointless ‘tear them down’ attitude online that achieves little but can ruin lives, as Jon Ronson’s recent work has highlighted. Judith Butler, one of the theorists I draw on a lot in my research, makes the point that being criticial does not mean being destructive. I think that is something to always keep in mind.
S: The Beauty Myth is an incredibly powerful work. It made me rethink the beauty industry especially in the historical context of the feminism. It makes complete sense that when women had begun to recognise their potential power that the business and media world began to pedal the ideals of beauty and perfection, in order undermine the feminist movement
M: It’s this internalization of discipline and shame, and the redirection of energy away from anything that threatens the status quo. To work and shop and diet to achieve some vague but omnipresent idea of ‘perfection’. Simone de Beauvoir called it ‘the eternal feminine’, this idealized version of womanhood we are conditioned to aspire to. The eternal feminine is everywhere and nowhere, sitting on your shoulder like a tiny devil. It is incredibly powerful. Wolf opened my eyes to what was really going on, in terms of me realizing that so much of what was expected of me as a young woman, while being presented as ‘natural’, was anything but. My initial degree was in Media Studies and that was where I first encountered feminist theory. I felt like I had been given a language to express things that I had always felt but didn’t have the means or the self-belief to articulate. Once that lightbulb goes on and you begin to see that what you’re experiencing is real, that it has a history, that you are part of a continuum of millions of women across the world and across time who wouldn’t stand for this nonsense – it’s impossible to ever forget that. You can’t go back to thinking everything is okay when it so clearly isn’t.
S: I completely agree. Sometimes I want to turn off that lightbulb and not see the never-ending disparities between the experiences of women and men in this world.
M: Yes, that’s it. We still have to live in this world. I know that there were long periods of my career, working in publishing and in media, where I had to dial down the feminist in me, in order to exist in that world and not draw attention to myself. In order to survive, even, to attain a level of success we’re told we should want. I found that increasingly difficult because as you get older, you become more…
M: ‘Radical’, that’s a great word. That is exactly it. You see it for what it is – the game is rigged. This expectation that you have as a child that if you’re a good person and you work hard then there will be a fair playing field – one that is gender blind, built on merit – doesn’t materialize for an awful lot of women. You end up working harder and harder, stuck in a cycle of guilt and frustration. That’s not equality and it is no way to achieve a healthy work-life balance or any kind of contentment.
S: Do you think that people are becoming more comfortable with the notion or even the word, feminism? It irks me when people distance themselves from the word..
M: In a weird way, I think that’s a testament to the power of the word. Feminism demands that the world be better. This means that a lot of people who do really well out of the world as it is wouldn’t do quite so well – or well at all, based on their world view – if feminism achieves its aims. In the 70s, 80s and 90s the media, tapping into the fear of regime change that feminism represents, created these awful stereotypes, portraying feminists as man-haters with no sense of humour. Utter rubbish but it was effective, sadly. So the fear of the word ‘feminism’ mightn’t be quite as negative as it initially seems. And it’s okay that feminism makes people uncomfortable. That’s its job. I find that a lot of reflection and learning beings at the point of something being ‘uncomfortable’, once people open their minds a little bit.
S: I read your essay Feminism Inc. in which you discuss Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Dawn Foster’s critique Lean Out (read it here on The Coven) recently. The idea of a ‘watered-down’ or a version of feminism that is palatable for the capitalism society is really interesting and something we need to be aware of isn’t it?
‘The problems inherent in naming Sandberg’s philosophy as “feminist” is something Foster does a stellar job of unpacking. This “corporate feminism” or “1% feminism” as she calls it, reduces one of the most powerful social justice movements in human history to a watered down, non-threatening shadow of itself, content to make-do with the world largely as it is without daring to imagine a radically different one.’
M: Thank you. I think a lot of what I feel about it comes back to how the world is structured. Is it good that feminism is having a popular moment? In one way, absolutely. It’s a gateway for those who’ve never thought about these things before to begin to feel comfortable engaging with them. On the other hand, just because feminism is having a moment, doesn’t mean that patriarchy or capitalism is suspended. The system needs to sustain itself so if it can make marketable a watered down version of feminism then that’s what it’s going to do. Unsurprisingly, a watered down feminism is a feminism with its political intent almost entirely removed, so the status quo goes largely unchallenged, with maybe a few minor concessions. As a feminist, you need to look beyond the feel good bubble, you need to look beyond yourself and ask, can we really trust these companies? Or the mainstream media? Or this government? What’s their track record? More often than not, it isn’t about political and social change, it’s about money and power and we need to be wise to that.
S: One thing that I am trying to change about myself and encourage my friends to do is to ‘take a chance’, actively engage with things that they’re interested in. This website is my attempt at that. For me, the fear of failure or rejection is very stifling. What’s your take on it?
M: Ah yes. I wrote a piece for Irish Country Magazine about imposter syndrome and it is one of those features that really stuck with me. The original research on imposter syndrome was carried out by psychologists on successful, high-performing women who were convinced that they were frauds, despite staggering evidence to the contrary. We’ve all had it; your rational mind is saying ‘you’re qualified, you’re experienced; you’ve done this before!’ You have – but there’s a primal part of you that shouts way louder than the logical part and says ‘who do you think you are? Sit down, woman, before you make a holy show of yourself.’ Part of it is being human and part of it is being a woman in this world. The only way to deal with it is, to quote Susan Jeffers, to feel the fear and do it anyway. I look back on my TedX talk and there was sizeable part of my mind that was shouting ‘just say ‘no’’. But as terrifying as it is to say ‘yes’, I think we owe it to ourselves to say yes, for ourselves and for other women, too. One statement that always resonates with me is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Often, women don’t see themselves in the culture and if they do, it’s in very limiting ways. So when we say yes to things, you with your website, me with my TedX talk, there are women who will encounter that and say ‘well if they can do it, I can do it’. And if they’re reading this, I say: I really hope you do.
If you would like to keep up to date on Mary’s work, you can find her blog here
She’s also one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter, so go do that here (if you haven’t already)
Big, big thanks to Mary for giving her time and very wise thoughts so generously.