7 April 2021
There’s an Aunt Lydia in my life. There might be one in yours too.
My Aunt Lydia is fiercely intelligent, enviably well dressed, and was always kind to me as an awkward high schooler. She is an old neighbour and family friend. She believes that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. She believes her cat knows when she’s planning to go away and sulks for a week before. She believes that if a woman gets blackout drunk at a work function and takes no responsibility for her behaviour, then isn’t she partly to blame for what happens next?
With Parliament House and the activities of the Liberal Party sparking no shortage of takes on issues surrounding consent, it’s infuriating but no longer shocking to hear opinions like these voiced. What’s harder for many of us to reconcile, intellectually and emotionally, is hearing this sentiment from another woman.
The term Aunt Lydia is taken from the Margaret Atwood novel and recent television adaption, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The character of Aunt Lydia is a sadistic enforcer of the dystopic nation of Gilead’s rules that keep women subservient and enslaved in society. She is a symbol of complicity in a misogynistic system, and the vitriol with which she hurls the words slut and whore at her charges matches the physical beatings performed at the behest of her male masters.
Complicit in misogyny. It’s no wonder The Handmaid’s Tale still resonates with readers 25 years after its publication.
I’d love to make excuses for my Aunt Lydia. I’d love to be able to say that she’s of a different generation, and her views are just old fashioned (she’s younger than my parents). I wish I could call it a case of ignorance, and where she’s just in need of education about the issues (she’s a highly educated woman and well versed in politics). I wish I could say it was a one off (it wasn’t).
I think all women learn pretty quickly that the sisterhood is aspirational rather completely rooted in reality. Day to day, we don’t always have each other’s backs, we don’t always lift each other up, and in spite of what that overpriced skincare commercial told you, we aren’t always each other’s champions.
When I see on Linkedin that a woman I went to university with has landed my dream job, I don’t feel inspired for the sisterhood. When my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend posts a gorgeous makeup-free selfie on Instagram, I don’t feel proud of her for feeling confident in her skin as a woman. That’s just being human.
I’d argue that it’s a different pattern of behaviour altogether when women seek to bring other women down using the loaded words, myths and ideologies that are underpinned by the dominance of men over women.
When the Liberal Party’s Teena McQueen joked that she’d “kill to get sexually harassed right now,” she was invoking the misogynistic concept that the predatory behaviour of men benefits women, who take advantage of the situation.
And when Defence Minister Linda Reynolds called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow” after she went public with allegations of being raped in the Minister’s office, she was perpetuating the harmful myth that most women lie about being sexually assaulted (whereas in reality far more sexual assaults go unreported than the statistically small amount of unfounded accusations).
If this is the example set by our female leaders, it’s not surprising girls grow up using the words slut and whore as the ultimate put downs, rather than recognising them as patriarchal relics with no relevance to our fun, frightening, at times regretful adolescence.
Atwood’s Aunt Lydia is one of those great characters that makes you question her motivations, and even feel some sympathy for her. Is her cruelty towards the women of Gilead misogyny or internalised misogyny, loathing or self-loathing? Or are we overthinking it, and is she just acting out of self-preservation and joining the winning team? Whatever the case, complying with the system and enforcing misogynistic rules turned out to be her greatest downfall, as she never predicted that no matter how far above the other women she rose, she would forever be subordinate in a system she helped to create.
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