Monday, 2 January 2012

How to disregard a woman (explorer)

Ever since their first discovery, the polar regions have fascinated humanity. The endless frozen deserts, the blinding snowy white, and the few animals which make this inhospitable climate their home can best be described by one term in particular: extreme. And the ‘extreme’ hardly attracts the tame.

Looking at our traditionally fixed gender roles, it comes as no surprise that the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic has until recently been the sole preserve of men. Men, according to dominant ideology, are on the mere basis of their sex daring, brave and adventurous, that is, ‘made’ for exploration, while women, on the mere basis of theirs, are meek, fearful and cautious, that is, ‘made’ to stay at home. However, many women have challenged this restrictive stereotype throughout history and continue to challenge it to this day.

Some of our contemporary female explorers are gaining public recognition and have recently appeared in a feature in the Evening Standard to mark their success. But as the title indicates, their achievements do not solely revolve around polar exploration: “Meet the polar babes” (Evening Standard 2011). As the definition shows, a ‘babe’ is both an infantile human: as in “a baby”, and the object of/to man: as in “a sexually attractive young woman” (OD 2012), which fundamentally skews our understanding of female explorers towards their ‘essential’ ineptness as well as their ‘essential’ position within humankind.

The first paragraph further pursues this line of thought: the women are “noticeable by their youth - not to mention their good looks”, which underpins the notion of the ideal state of (patriarchal) womanhood. A woman who is ‘young’ and ‘good-looking’ appears to be both welcome into the world of “rugged, bearded men” as well as excludable from it (Evening Standard 2011) – a ‘childlike sex-object’ will hardly be a serious challenge to the dominant position of man-kind after all.

But even as ‘objects’, “The ice queen” Bonita Norris, “The cold warrior” Helen Skelton and “The frozen beauty” Amelia Hempleman-Adams are unable to fully stand alone: Norris is propped up by a “father [who] works in the roofing business”, Skelton “come[s] from a family of football fans” and Hempleman-Adams is the “daughter of adventurer David Hempleman-Adams”, with their mothers' name, profession and shaping influence nowhere to be seen (Evening Standard 2011). It is (still) ‘man’, it seems, who ‘makes’ woman, and it is ‘man’ also who ‘makes use of’ her.

The final paragraph completes this circular line of thinking: “if neither academia nor exploring work as a career for Amelia, her looks might help her out” (Evening Standard 2011), which neatly closes the lid on women’s achievement. Today, you might (be allowed to) try but whether you succeed or fail, all roads still seem to lead back to the historical prison raised up for womankind: objectification. Woe betide the woman who has neither (the patriarchal understanding of) ‘youth’ nor ‘beauty’ – will we hear about her at all?

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