This week, Beyoncé inadvertently delivered a pithy encapsulation of patriarchal expectation without even saying anything. Photos of her, managing to look like a regal puff of delicious cotton candy, next to Ed Sheeran, a man whose dress sense is just about as thrilling as the ballads that he hurls unrelentingly at the cowering public, took the internet by storm. I first saw them when my best friend, cackling audibly from her adjacent bedroom, sent them to me on Instagram.
I think a good way to measure the slow progress on the uphill slog towards gender equality is taking a long hard look at how we define ‘goodness’ and what we expect from each gender, respectively. Much good content has been written arguing that these images demonstrate the huge gap between what we expect from men and women at the top of their game, and I’m not going to re-hash it all here (woe betide me to feed a fed horse).
One of my favourite sayings about the patriarchy is ‘women have to do double the work to get half the recognition.’ I’ve had how to edit a newspaper and how to write a column mansplained to me more times than I can count, normally by men whose knowledge of journalism is level with that of a relatively intelligent slug.
It isn’t enough for Beyoncé to be stunningly talented. She also has look amazing, constantly. She has to do everything backwards, in high heels, in order to be considered in the same league as Ed Sheeran, who apparently just has to put his boxers on all by himself and brush his teeth.
Society demands perfection from women. But these demands actively prevent women from ever being three dimensional people. Journalists Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes recently discussed the ways in which challenging women to ‘have it all’ prevents us from being people. All we do is mutate ourselves in the confines of the expanded Madonna Whore complex, which now includes the category of workaholic bitch. I have to be ruthless at work, irresistible in bed and unfailingly supportive in my friendships and relationships. There is no space in which these categories can overlap and therefore no space in which women are ever allowed to be themselves.
The perfect woman doesn’t exist, but women are expected to strive for this fiction at the detriment of their mental health, emotional lives, and relationships. The rise of sex dolls asks interesting questions about why men want to fuck non-sentient rubber women. Is it because they can’t say no? Or is it because they can’t say anything?
We don’t just expect women to be perfect (but non threatening) in the boardroom. We expect them to be perfect in love, in family dynamics, in the very way they run their lives. Society just does not demand the same from men. Most of the men I’ve dated can’t remember their mum’s birthday. All of the men I’ve dated acted like they’d just invented space travel when they remembered to get me flowers on Valentine’s Day.
Society gives men far more leeway to fail without branding them as failures. Women are taught that anything short of perfection is failure, and that asking for help is the same as admitting defeat.