My post about the #noexcuses culture in the fitness industry seemed to hit a nerve with many people. I was expecting some backlash, yet there was a generalised sense of relief and recognition that we are all actually doing our best. Some days are “better” than others, and that’s okay.

At the heart of that post, and something I am interested in as a writer in particular, is the way in which narratives from social media, books and film, advertising, and even the news generate a shared cultural understanding of who we are and how we are meant to be in the world. In other words, I am interested in how the stories we are told shape our sense of self and identity. Whether we are consciously aware of this or not, we are bombarded with subtle messages about socially and culturally appropriate ways of looking, feeling and behaving, and this happens from the get-go.

We are all aware of the children’s stories in which the little boys embark on wild adventures and the little girls try to temper them, care for them and please their mothers (see Enid Blyton). These narratives set us along a path of gendered binaries and norms that shape how we respond, act and see ourselves in relations to others. No! I hear you cry. That is just PC madness. *cough, cough* I’m afraid not folks and don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the literature from a bi-gone era that we can all laugh off as a little bit sexist, a little bit classist, and a whole lot racist.

And fairy tales? While companies such as Disney have in recent years made an effort to shift the fairy tale princess away from the meek and mild, gorgeous and virtuous, humble and unassuming portrayal of women (who love nothing more than to clean and fantasise about their future marriage) with more adventurous, self-determined and autonomous characters, we as a society continue to feed our children the “old classics” as a baseline of children’s narrative.

Contemporary children’s stories while more sophisticated, continue to subtly suggest the dynamic (and binary) between genders. Love Harry Potter? Me too. It’s funny and clever, and the writing is stunning. But didn’t you find Hermione (at least in the first few books) just that bit annoying? She wanted to please her teachers, was a “know-it-all” who constantly tried to reign in (or mother) the boys. She was (and I love these books) the stereotypical female wet cloth. Hermione speaks and much eye-rolling ensues. But if you really think about it, Hermione’s intelligence, common-sense and forethought are qualities that should be celebrated rather than ridiculed. Then there’s Mrs Weasley, a hard-working mother and housewife (somewhat frazzled and frumpy) who sits at home cooking and watching her magic clock, terrified that something will happen to her children or husband.

My daughter loves the tweeny TV show “Dance Academy”. It’s mocumentary-style show set in a dance school with the usual teenage angst. The girls are bitchy and set against each other. The boys try to physically out-compete each other. One of the episodes I managed to catch involved a dance-off between two boys, the winner of which got to keep the girl they were fighting over as their girlfriend. The documentary-style filming removes the illusion of fiction, making this narrative appear to be “real.” It’s now banned in my house.

Don’t despair. Things are getting better in the world of child indoctrination. There are many new adventurous female characters emerging that don’t portray mini-mother figures. There are some amazing authors out there writing stories for girls (and boys) that produce balanced, exciting, complex and nuanced female characters. Girls are being seen more and more as leaders, inventors and active agents in their own futures. For example, Podcasts like “Fierce Girls” celebrate the achievements of remarkable women from around the world. All good things.

What concerns me, however, is (and this isn’t a new problem) that girls are sometimes portrayed as dress-wearing versions of boys and men. That is, you can be equal “only if” you are the same. We will respect you “only if” you can do all the things we can do. This is a big problem and not just for girls. Boys that don’t fit the male stereotype are marginalised and seen as other or lesser as well.

It’s just a harmless story you say? Maybe, but stories reflect how we, as a society, view the world. Here are a couple of examples of the stories I’m seeing:

Trolling through Facebook (perhaps I need to address this addiction), I found a picture of a mug labelled “perfect Father’s Day gift”, vomited a little into my mouth then shared it on Facebook in outrage. If you didn’t see that post, here it is again:

So where to begin with the story that this “gift” is telling.

1: Don’t worry Dad, I know it’s a bit disappointing I’m a girl but I can pretend to be a boy to make you happy.

2: Being “a man” is of greater value that being a woman.

3: You are completely justified in your disappointment in my gender.

4: I. Just. Can’t.

So, what happens to us, as women, if we value stereotyped ideas of masculinity and maleness as the pinnacle of cultural importance? The story changes. We can be equal, but on new terms. “Only if.”

This picture below captures this in a way that is subtle and easy to overlook. Masked as a celebration of women, it is instead a celebration of those ideals of masculinity and maleness as the most admirable and valorised qualities of humanity.

Don’t get me wrong, kudos to female paramedics/doctors, servicewomen (note: spellcheck tried to change this to servicemen), firefighters, but, and this is a big but, what do any of these professions have to do with women being equal to men in today’s society? So, the only way to be equal is to go out and physically outdo men in what are seen as traditionally male roles? We are equal, if we act the same? “Only if” we also have a six-pack and run marathons (I don’t know about you, but I see plenty of unfit, overweight guys around.) This is problematic for me, because, women shouldn’t have to compete with men to be considered equal to them (nor vice versa.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions challenges cultural assumptions about gender roles by putting forward fifteen suggestions for helping girls navigate and circumvent the existing cultural stories that tell us how to be in the world. Her words struck a chord with me. In her introduction Adichie makes a simple statement of equality that is so important:

“The first is your premise, the solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. No ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.” (2017, 8)

This is the story we need to tell. To everyone.

Women do not need to “go out and prove” they are equal to men. They are equal. Full stop. Whether mothers at home, politicians, beauticians, CEO’s, receptionists, lawyers. Nor do they need to apologise.

As a mother of a daughter and a son, I expect both of them to understand this.

One of the ways for us, as a society, to understand this is to change the stories we tell ourselves.