Pussy power puts a ceiling on the brain

2010-09-04 09:46

Afew weeks ago, I attended an event to hear two feminists speak about their experiences of working in the media.

Refreshing in their candour, witty and critical of power in its various manifestations, nothing they said was predictable.

Along with the other feminist men and women in the room, I was shocked, amused, inspired and deeply challenged.

As I listened to them speak about growing up as black girls in apartheid South Africa and dreaming about becoming a writer and filmmaker, respectively, something resonated within me.

I have heard this strong will to do the ‘‘impossible’’ and dream big recounted by other people who, like me, were just entering adulthood when apartheid ended.

I have also seen it embodied in others of older generations.

Even with the institutional violence designed to make us hate ourselves completely, apartheid never managed to ‘‘put a ceiling on our brains’’, to borrow a phrase from Alice Walker.

That is why there could be all those women’s marches, including the most famous one we mark yearly in August.

This does not trivialise the savagery of apartheid, it is to recognise that we were never just what a white supremacist patriarchal system said we were.

I asked whether young women today – especially young black girls – had wider horizons and more room to dream than we did as Black girls in the 1970s and 1980sseventies and eighties.

Nobody in the room thought this was the case. But there was a contradiction – post-apartheid black girls were seen as having narrower horizons or form part of what Nokuthula Mazibuko calls the ‘cleavage brigade’?

For a global icon of this phenomenon, think of Beyonce Knowles, powerful artist and business woman.

As we collectively tried to make sense of this, Gail Smith, the writer-feminist suggested that it was a combination of the huge toll played by the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the additional burden it places on children.

The gap between her real power and her self-positioning as sex object in the content of her lyrics and videos is notable.

Think about how many times you have read or seen interviews with local powerful women where the bulk of the time was spent on her love life, childbearing, or desirability.

The problem with this constant attention to women’s goods is that it suggests that there is something to apologise for in dreaming big and wild. and wild.

The explosion of conspicuous consumption means it is more in vogue for individuals to speak about themselves as brands than to think critically and imaginatively.

The explosion of conspicuous consumption means it is more in vogue for individuals to speak about themselves as ‘brands’ than to think critically and imaginatively.

 In other words, it is not who you are that matters the most but what can be seen about you.

Interestingly, two decades ago Njabulo Ndebele called this the South African obsession with spectacle.

He was speaking of a slightly different phenomenon, but the new manifestations of the spectacle still value the visible over the felt, imagined and thought.

Is it any wonder, then, that ‘‘pussy power’’ is part of what is glorified when some of the most powerful women in the country, and the world, rely on their bodies and their ‘‘goods’’ to claim pussypower?

In contrast, some of the most visible women under the brutal apartheid regime were Winnie Mandela and Cheryl Carolus, among others.

Back then, it was acceptable to be a smart, wilful girl who dreamed big.

Maybe, in addition to the pomp of celebrating Women’s Month, adult South African women can think about how to actively contribute towards creating wider horizons for little black girls again.

» Gqola is a feminist writer, associate professor in humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and author of What Is Slavery To Me? published by Wits Press

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