I understand why Joanna Lumley says women must be tougher. The thing is, they already are | Emma John

Calling out sexual harassment is not soft or ‘being a victim’, whatever the actress may claim

Sometimes, being absolutely fabulous isn’t enough to save you from the backlash. So Joanna Lumley discovered last week, after making some scathing remarks on what she perceives as a fashion for victimhood.

Asked in an interview whether she considered herself a role model for feminism, Lumley nimbly dodged the question, before catching herself on the edge of it and tumbling into a deep hole. She told Prospect magazine that women “were a lot tougher” when she was young and that “it didn’t matter” when you got whistled at in the street back then. “If someone was groping, we slapped their hands,” said Lumley. “We were quite tough and looked after ourselves.”

Perhaps if the 76-year-old had stopped there, she might have squeaked away with it. There are enough women of my generation who know what our mothers and grandmothers were forced to put up with from men on a near-daily basis and most of us marvel at their bravery and resilience. We know their stories well enough to recognise the power dynamic, and the social history, to which Lumley was alluding.

But instead the actor finished with a flourish that revealed rather more about how she sees the world. “The new fashion is to be a victim, a victim of something,” she added. “It’s pathetic. We have gone mad.” And with that theatrical touch – you can almost picture Patsy’s disdainful sneer as you hear it – she lost many of her would-be sympathisers and started to sound a bit, well, unsympathetic.

Should we be shocked and appalled, as the online reaction inevitably demanded? Well, sure, if you’re committed to vilifying everyone over the age of 60 who feels out of touch and struggles to understand why everything’s so different now. You can’t deny that there’s a touch of taxi-driver rhetoric in Lumley’s language and a comical whiff of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch in her argument (“You try and tell the young people today that, and they won’t believe yer…”)

Personally, I find it impossible to get furious at Lumley for saying the kind of thing that I can hear myself echoing in roughly 20 years’ time, probably in a rather less public setting but with just such a cry of baffled alienation. As society progresses and – let’s be clear – improves, it is human nature to make comparisons and to shake our head at how much harder we had it in our day.

Given that Lumley has already decried people’s increasing propensity to jump on the “mental illness bandwagon”, it’s obvious her frustration is less about the specifics of street harassment or inappropriate touching and far more about the general sense that folk today are prepared to take less on the chin than they used to. And having been raised in a pre-Brené Brown world, it would be hypocritical of me to pretend I can’t understand where she’s coming from.

My feminism was inherited from women who navigated a far different world to the one I would occupy, and some of what I learned would barely be considered worthy of the title today. My mother, the only female partner in her law firm throughout her career, had a host of tips on how to “manage” male peers and bosses, most of which involved making oneself appear as unwomanly as possible.

She pragmatically argued that the best way to get your idea adopted was to convince a man it was his and let him take credit for it. (To those who dismiss this as reductive fridge-magnet-style cliche, I can only say that my mother was both a practical and a successful woman: she wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t work.)

Brought up by a grandmother who survived east London during the blitz and a mother who understood that complaining about workplace sexism would get her precisely nowhere, I perceived a strong and courageous woman as one who got on with things uncomplainingly. A woman with the wisdom to understand that life involved sufferings and the fortitude to bear them.

All this contributed to a deep-rooted outlook I struggle to shake off, which is why I still shudder involuntarily at the phrase self-care and why my first attempts at therapy were a disaster.

When you know that so many women have far worse troubles than you, it can feel inappropriate and even selfish to complain about your own seemingly trivial experiences. Perhaps that’s one reason why older women might resist the more medical language of mental health in discussing the unhappiness or anxiety that they’ve been taught are just a part of life. It might be just as understandable that they would feel uncomfortable with the legal terminology of sexual assault in matters that they were persuaded to deem insignificant, and learned to cope with alone.

An increasing understanding of and priority for mental wellbeing will, of course, benefit everyone in the long run. And so will laws that make it clear that intimidatory behaviour is unacceptable. Earlier this month, the government announced it would back a bill to criminalise street harassment – including the catcalling that Lumley used to shrug off – with sentences of up to two years.

The truth, as we are increasingly learning, is that there’s a direct connection between a culture that shrugs its shoulders at the so-called small stuff and a societal omerta that permits sexual violence to thrive unchecked. No one can sensibly argue that women who call out sexual harassment are somehow soft or that the campaign for its denormalisation is part of a trend of self-victimisation. Toughness takes different forms, and the women fighting to have harassment outlawed have shown as much of it as anyone.

• Emma John is a freelance author and writer

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


Emma John

The GuardianTramp

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