OPINION: I am tired of Women's Month, already
'I just don't like being called a woman'.
A friend and I once sat and tried to unpack her statement. She was trying to understand why, in her 30s, she still preferred to refer to herself as a girl and disliked the word 'woman'. Our talk turned to growing up, sexism, how beauty is associated with youth, and everything that the word 'woman' has come to mean, trying to make sense of her affinity for the word 'girl'.
To honour Women's Day pen manufacturer Bic posted an image on Facebook encouraging women to 'Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a boss'. It came up on my timeline around the same time as an article from the ONE organisation that seemingly championed 'Amazing South African Strong Girls'. However, this list included the likes of Thuli Madonsela, Graca Machel and Lindiwe Mazibuko. Women, reduced to girls.
That conversation with my friend replayed on a loop in my head - as I started to think about the girl-ification and infantilisation of womenhood, and the endless assault and onslaught of sexism that Women's Month has become.
When Sisonke Msimang stated that Women's Month has become 'open season on women' and an assault from all sides, it is this kind of thing that she was imagining: brands serving up sexism, with a side of cupcakes, spa treatments, stilettos and anything pink on rinse, re-cycle and repeat, with no real interrogation of the complexities of being a woman. Simply the same stereotypes, tropes and easy associations.
It is not like this was unexpected. Many writers and commentators have weighed in on why Women's Month too often entrenches and repeats the sexism that it claims to be trying to uproot and rally against, while ignoring the issues women face, and the patriarchal structure that supports this.
They have explored how it has been removed from its political roots, become about cheap gimmicks and disregarded 'the structural nature of domestic violence', and interrogated how Women's Month has become 'Mother's Day and Valentine's Day sort of smooshed together in a vague pamper-perfume-spoil-yourself marshmallow cloud', perfecting 'the fine art of useless - often offensive - rhetoric' and giving both men and patriarchy 'a free pass'.
Much of what has happened, such as the Bic incident, was expected - because it happens every Women's Month, and beyond it. It happens every day, in different ways.
But no matter how much you arm yourself, and expect these tired, dangerous and violent expressions of womenhood, the reductionism and sexism remains frustratingly pervasive, constant, and extremely exhausting. It comes at you from all corners.
Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss.
Essentially, be a certain kind of woman. Look a certain way. Fit into a neat box. A month that claims to be about the empowerment of women instead becomes a time that violently highlights some of the worst ways in which we police, prescribe and endorse a particular kind of womanhood.
I keep coming back to this quote from Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which seems particularly relevant during this time:
"It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies - it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it."
But even when this is so pervasive, it still remains invisible to many, because of the assumption that rights on paper have translated into perfect equality in reality.
We have to make sense of what kind of thinking makes it possible for Graca Machel, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Thuli Madonsela to be referred to as girls. It is unthinkable to refer to successful men as boys. Similarly, 'Look like a boy. Act like a gentleman. Think like a woman. Work like a boss' is an inconceivable campaign slogan.'
But Bic and The ONE campaign's tweets, Marie Claire's stiletto campaign and defence of Euphonik, the department of women's statements this month, are not separate incidents. They are connected by a structure that devalues women and dictates how women should be in this world.
A world where women occupy 3.6% of CEO positions in male-dominated corporate industry get paid an estimated average of 15% less than men in the same positions, in our country, while 'global wage gaps show they range from between 4% and 36% or more'. A world where 62,649 sexual offences were recorded in South Africa in 2013/2014 - across genders - while it is estimated that only one in nine cases are reported. And a world where women continue to face daily sexism, discrimination and violence that we can't neatly and easily quantify.
While there is much that we have achieved, there is still a long way to go, and much of that will involve a real commitment to considering different experiences of womenhood and exploring how we are all impacted by and reproduce sexism, gender inequalities, and forms of bigotry in our daily lives.
It will not stop until we start unpacking all of the ways that sexism and misogyny have embedded themselves in our society, touched who we are, the way we think and speak about women. So much so that 'it is in the air, or so it seems'.
It is hard, constant and necessary work. Unless we do that work, we will find ourselves here, again. Annually. Monthly. Daily. Speaking about the same issues, every Women's Month, and beyond it.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.