Spot the sexist difference

When Rina Wolfson wrote on Facebook about her discomfort with the different way men and women dancers are presented on stage, the reaction was not what she had bargained for


Pesach, Or Zeman Cheruteinu – Time of our Freedom. 

Cheder teachers everywhere have spent months explaining the concept of freedom to children who, stuck in classrooms on sunny Sunday mornings, know better than many what a lack of it feels like. 

This year, it seems especially appropriate to me to celebrate personal freedom – not least because last year, the choices I made were frequently unpopular. I voted for Owen Smith in the Labour Leadership election. I voted Remain in the EU Referendum. And in the US presidential election I was, proudly “With Her”. On each occasion, my social media timelines fully supported me. And each time, I was on the losing side.

So for 2017, I made a New Year’s resolution, to be open to different points of view. I would leave my echo chamber and expose myself to opinions I don’t usually hear. 

I should have been more careful what I wished for.

On New Year’s Eve, I watched a fully clothed Robbie Williams usher in the new year on BBC1, surrounded by female dancers wearing leather bras and knickers. Later, I saw Mariah Carey sing in New York, wearing a nude-coloured leotard, backed by fully clothed men. I was angry and annoyed by the double standard. And I expressed my irritation. On Facebook. 

So far, so what? It was a private post, written at 2am, unnoticed by anyone. But in the morning, a friend with links to the world of dance and drama asked me to make it public, so that her colleagues could see it. She thought their perspective would be interesting. In the spirit of that New Year’s resolution, 

I agreed.

And then things got a little crazy.

Within an hour, the post was shared hundreds of times and attracted pages of comments. It didn’t exactly go viral, but it garnered far more bandwidth than I had expected, or felt comfortable with. 

On the whole, the reaction was largely supportive. There were, of course, the inevitable trolls who resorted to quite nasty personal abuse, and the mansplainers, who generously described why this is no longer an issue and where my feminist politics are faulty. (They were ignored.)

Out of the remaining critical comments, two themes emerged. Some felt I was ‘body shaming’ the dancers. Others adamantly defended the dancers’ right to personal choice. (Strangely, they were less vocal about my own right to express my misgivings...)

Within a few hours, the debate had shifted from Mariah’s body to mine. I was informed that I obviously hate my own body. There I was, on New Year’s Day, a forty-something mother of three, forced to defend my body image. Now, obviously, there are things about my body I’d love to change. I wish I had thicker hair, a flatter stomach and 20/20 vision. But actually, I don’t hate my body. In fact, I think my body is pretty amazing. It carried and gave birth to premature twins, fed them back to health, and ran the London Marathon. So I don’t hate my body – and nor do I hate Mariah Carey’s body, or the bodies of Robbie Williams’ dancers.

What I do hate is a cultural norm that is so insidious we’ve stopped noticing it. I hate opening magazines and seeing practically naked women advertising everything from perfume, to cars, to bottled water. And I hate being accused of prudishness or religious coercion for expressing misgivings about nudity on TV.

What, then, of personal choice? Doesn’t Mariah have the freedom to wear what she wants? Of course she does. But at this time of year, I’m reminded that with freedom to choose comes the responsibility to face the consequences of our choices. There is a consequence to living in a society that objectifies women’s bodies. Freedom to make a choice doesn’t make it a good choice. Nor does it mean that others are unaffected.

I’m not a prude. I’m not asking the dancers to wear burqas. But isn’t there a middle ground between burqa and burlesque? I’m troubled by a society that normalises women dancing in underwear inspired by violent pornography. After all, this wasn’t a programme on ITV3 on a Tuesday evening in March. It was the flagship New Year’s Eve countdown on the nation’s major broadcaster. If women dancing in underwear doesn’t raise eyebrows there, then I think we have a problem. 

I do believe that our right to choose what we wear is a central pillar of feminist politics. Those who loudly, and rather crudely, accused me of having ‘body issues’ weren’t to know that I have championed and demanded that right, sometimes at significant personal cost. Indeed, gender inequality, and the policing of women’s bodies and dress code, was one of the primary reasons that I moved away from Orthodox Judaism. On this, as on other issues, I am passionately ‘pro-choice’. 

But to me, choosing to wear bondage gear on national television doesn’t feel like a very positive choice. It’s as empowering as turkeys voting for Christmas. Or, more relevantly, the paschal lamb voting for Passover.  

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive