I’m a man with a penis and everything, but it’s come to my attention that I own a handbag. It looks like a backpack – but don’t be fooled, it is most definitely a handbag. It has a main compartment which holds a jumper in case I get cold (you can always take layers off), as well as an easy-access side pocket where I can keep a bottle of water so I don’t run the risk of becoming dehydrated (and as Cosmo points out, to ward off cellulite). What’s more, there’s a small zip-up pouch in which I keep painkillers, deodorant, hair product, cologne, and a pack of tissues, as well as a cream for relieving what my girlfriend has so eloquently labelled as my ‘fanny rash’; a soothing ointment for an occasional itch that my GP informs me is caused by the same fungi responsible for vaginal thrush. Hence ‘fanny rash’.
So there it is. I carry around a bag with painkillers (not tonight darling, I have a headache) and medicine for my vaginal maladies. If that doesn’t make my backpack a handbag, then I don’t know what does. Of course, you won’t find lipstick or eye-liner in my bag, but that’s also true of many women. What’s more, I’m sure there are many women who don’t carry a handbag at all, let alone have the permanent access to Caneston Duo afforded to me by my backpack. And yet, there’s an idea that men are versatile hunter-gatherers who rely solely on their leathered skin (protection from spears) and wiry pubic hair (fashion a rope) when out and about, while women carry a bag of potions, lotions and frocks in case they break down and start leaking, or else, meet Prince Charming and need to quickly doll up in order to secure a marriage proposal.
The truth is, both men and women wear bags, but for some reason these are categorised as two distinct kinds of behaviour, when in actual fact they’re exactly the same. We all need to carry stuff about with us sometimes. End of. It’s absurd, but we’ve gendered something as trivial and universal as carrying shit around. There are manbags and there are handbags – and never shall the two meet. But I call bullshit. I know a handbag when I use one, and I use one every day.
The thing is: bags are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s no end to the things that society, the media, and advertising divvy up into female and male versions. Take shaving. Gillette’s Mach and Venus razors are essentially the same in terms of the equipment that they employ (three blades and a lubricant strip), but their names tell a very different story: Mach was a physicist who lent his surname to a metric used to measure the speeds of air craft, while Venus was the Roman deity of love, sex and beauty. Accordingly, the adverts for Mach razors take place in laboratories where technicians spend their time creating ‘technology’ to help men overcome the scientific mystery of shaving, and the Venus commercials happen at sunny poolsides, and implore women to ‘release their inner goddess’ to that familiar sex-object mantra (I’m your Venus/ I’m your fire/ Your desire).
So despite the fact that we’re all using the same little pieces of metal to remove some hair, Gillette insists on marketing one razor to man-robots and another to sex-goddesses. And the list goes on: women lose weight by drinking Diet Coke, men by drinking Coke Zero. Girls play with pink toys, boys play with blue ones (and, y’know, guns.) Birthday cards for her, birthday cards for him. I mean, come on – gendered birthday cards? Everyone has birthdays. Why separate that into man-births and woman-births? We’ve cut the metaphorical birthday cake in two and designated one half to men and the other half to women – but it’s the same bloody cake with the same fucking buttercream filling!
Obviously, there are differences between men and women (I can’t push people out of my genitalia, for example), but it is extremely damaging to relentlessly and surreptitiously invoke these differences into every aspect of our daily lives, especially when these differences are completely irrelevant (which overwhelmingly, they are). If we constantly bombard people with the message that women and menperforming identical activities (removing hair, drinking carbonated drinks to shed weight, being born etc, etc) are doing so in intrinsically and fundamentally different ways, then this lays the foundations for the world view that the differences between men and women matter more than the similarities. And it makes these differences seem large where they are small, significant where they are inconsequential, and ultimately leads to a divided society. Diet Coke and pink wrapping paper might not be solely responsible for the pay gap, but they certainly help to provide the conditions that make it a possibility.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a part of a world that systemically separates men and women into distinct domains, most often to the detriment of the latter. So why not cause some gender trouble? Ladies, wear a three piece suit. Gents: shave with a Venus razor. Fuck the system! Personally, I’m going to hold my backpack proudly in the air and yell, ‘This is my handbag. There are many others like it, but this one is mine!’