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Gender flips: Will role reversal help us reverse sexism?

Laughing out loud is not my usual reaction to feminist activism, but Leah Green’s gender flip video for the Guardian, inspired by stories from Everyday Sexism, had just that impact. Green approaches men and repeats lines that women report have...


Laughing out loud is not my usual reaction to feminist activism, but Leah Green’s gender flip video for the Guardian, inspired by stories from Everyday Sexism, had just that impact. Green approaches men and repeats lines that women report have been said to them. The sight of Green completely straight faced asking if she can have lap dance with her wine and the utterly bemused reaction of the men she approaches had me in stitches.

Green isn’t the first person to use gender flips to make a point about sexism, from Gloria Steinem asking what would happen if men could menstruate to Australian comedians Bondi Hipsters parodying a recent edition of GQ with a bearded man copying Miranda Kerr’s poses to show the dramatic difference in the way women and men are presented on magazine covers.

The power of these examples isn’t just that they showcase examples of sexism, it’s that they show how ingrained they are, how normalised sexism is in our society.

The sight of a grown man posing coquettishly, naked, with a teddy bear is not only unusual but the antithesis of sexy. The same photo shoot with a woman is nothing to bat an eyelid at. There’s nothing normal about a woman driving around in a white van shouting at male pedestrians that they’re sluts, as Green does, but a look at the Everyday Sexism twitter feed shows us that it’s only unusual after the gender flip.

“Isn’t this just shocking?” That’s how the shared experiences of harassment and abuse on the Everyday Sexism twitter account were introduced to me. I nodded along in agreement: “Yes, how appalling”, and “Who would behave like that?” But in reality the story wasn’t shocking. It seemed normal. And while I was appalled the particular account of harassment I was reading, it could have been recounted to me in any one of 100 conversations I’ve had with women friends since I was a teenager.

The key word for me wasn’t sexism, it was ‘everyday’. In recasting the participants in everyday interactions Green shows us the absurdity of what is deemed normal behaviour towards women.

Green also offers an insight into the power dynamic that patriarchy relies on to oppress women. Seeing men’s bemusement at Green’s behaviour contrasts dramatically with the feelings of irritation, disgust and worry expressed by the women who shared these stories.

This contrast can’t just be chalked up to the fact that it is unusual for men to experience this behaviour from women. Although Green initiates these conversations, she doesn’t hold power in them. By power I don’t mean physical power, I mean the cultural power afforded to men that tells them they’re in charge and rightfully so. It goes hand in hand with telling women that they don’t possess power and shouldn’t expect to.

Is it any wonder that this is the power dynamic in such conversations, in a culture where leadership roles from the cabinet to company boards are predominately male? Is it any wonder, in a society where the rape conviction rate remains one of the lowest in Europe and discussion on how to stop rape concentrates more on the behaviour of victims than perpetrators, that women don’t feel sexual comments can be laughed off?

This idea of power being concentrated with one gender is shown wonderfully in another gender flip video from France, Oppressed Majority, in which the male protagonist is patronised and dismissed by the powerful women around him.

These gender flips are potent not because they question accepted behaviour in general, but because of whose behaviour they question.

Too often the narrative around women’s oppression is routed in asking how women can change: what can she do to get a better job; what does she need to learn to get elected; what was she wearing that encouraged him? Women’s behaviour is always on trial, but these videos put male behaviour in the dock for a change. And they ask us to not to simply challenge individual actions, but our entire social system.

While we’ll not smash the patriarchy with these gender flips alone, they certainly make a useful tool start cracking the foundations.

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