Pride 2015: TEDx speaker Orlaith Hendron on fake tan, sexual harassment of lesbians and the taboo of female anger

“We are conditioned to be placid and I sometimes feel like all the anger of every woman in the world is inside me. I use it constructively. I use my voice”

TED talk Orlaith Hendron Bird With a Tale

Whilst the Pride Parade hits the streets in many cities across the globe and equality advocates are basking in the news that same-sex marriage is a legal right across the United States, I’m treating you to an interview with Orlaith Hendron. She is:

a) in her own words, a “raging lesbian”, and

b) a brave and humorous advocate for gender equality, as her TEDx talk shows. (Check out the video at the end of the interview.)

The interview is long but worth it. We don’t get to the equality illusion or even bras until right at the end, I mean…worth it, like I say.

The atmosphere of Pride is filling the city here in London and you’re out enjoying Pride in Berlin, so let’s talk about sexual orientation. For you personally, is there a connection between being a lesbian and your feminist views?

I was a feminist way before I knew I was lesbian. I grew up in a house with five kids; there were two boys and they were treated differently. They rarely did housework or any kind of chores, they were given more freedom, they were lifted and laid, as was my father. I started fights all the time with my mum about it, I spoke up from a very young age about fairness. In fact, my family joke that when I die the words “it’s not fair” will be put on my headstone, because I said it so much growing up. I didn’t see how it was fair that I would stand and do dishes after dinner, whilst the boys would watch TV or go outside and play.

So, I was feminist from no age, looking back. But I suppose coming out and being lesbian does add some depth to my experience of feminism. The best (and worst) example I can give is how I’m treated by men as a lesbian woman. They don’t see me as a threat, or even as a person sometimes.

I was out at a gay bar with my girlfriend at the time -this is years ago-  and I was kissing her when all of a sudden she jumps away from me and starts crying. When I look up I can see two men standing laughing, one filming us on his camera phone. She tells me that one of the guys has just put his hand up her skirt and inside her underwear as his friend filmed.

I was furious and she was extremely upset. I screamed at them, challenged them and grabbed the flip phone and broke it in half. The guy got very angry and we ran away to another part of the club. She was sexually assaulted as I was kissing her and all I could think was: If I’d been a man kissing his girlfriend that would never have happened. The only reason these two men thought that was OK was because it was two women, and they’re so full of entitlement that they don’t take lesbians seriously, or women.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Men ask all the time if they can join two lesbian women having sex. They ask if they can watch, they ask if they can be part of it. They act offended and get angry and aggressive when you react appropriately with disgust and anger to questions like that. The worst thing is that often people say: “Oh that’s just men, they all have this lesbian fantasy”, but that’s infuriating. It rings of the whole “boys will be boys” bullshit that we hear too often, and what it really does is negate my entire existence.

If as a lesbian your relationships and identity aren’t taken seriously then you become totally invisible. I don’t want to be fantasised about, I don’t want to be fetishised. I don’t want leery men thinking they can ask intimate questions. So I suppose a lot of my feminism is wrapped up in that, still now, repeated experience.

Feminism activism sex dolls Orlaith Hendron

Orlaith being a feminist

 The video is of a Tedx event in Stormont- how and why did it come about?

TEDxStormont was started in 2014 and is run by Eva Grossman and her team. TEDx means events are independently organised and they happen across the globe. I think it has come about because of the hard work Eva has put in to making it happen in Northern Ireland and it’s great to see people from here having a voice.

I was very proud to have been invited to talk, it was unexpected to be honest, and totally nerve wrecking, but its definitely an achievement for me!

You start by reading your poem The Con, which describes a woman wearing fake tan. But the title alludes to a bigger deception than the one she’s committing, which you call “the institution of fake tan”. So this isn’t about pointing the finger at tanners?

No, it’s definitely not about pointing the finger at people who wear fake tan, we’ve all been there. It’s getting at a much bigger issue; the cosmetics companies (and actually many different companies) are using women to make an obscene amount of money and they do this by putting women down.

You should look as young as possible, even if you’re not young…buy this expensive, animal tested anti-ageing cream- simple, right!? You’re too white, you should be tanned, buy this expensive, animal tested fake tan. Your hair is going grey, that’s shameful! Here, buy this expensive hair dye.

It’s all a big con. I think if women want to wear make up and use cosmetics etc then great, that should be their choice. But what’s happening out there is that we’re told as children to do these things: to shave our hairless legs and even arms, to dye our hair, to wear make-up, all to make ourselves feel good. But why do we feel bad in the first place? Because mass advertising tells us we should, because Hollywood tells us we should by using young women as wives for old men in movies.

There really isn’t anything wrong with having pale skin or grey hair or whatever it is, the beauty industry just can’t make money from us if we’re happy just as we are, so they put us down. That’s advertising. That’s capitalism.

You admit that you dabbled in fake tan for your sisters’ weddings.  Tell us about that experience! Is there any photographic evidence? 

Haha, it wasn’t just fake tan, it was hair and nails and dresses…it was great to be bridesmaid for both of them, but also great to get out of the dresses. The experience of wearing fake tan was woeful. I really could feel it on my skin, and it feels grubby. It smells bad too. But we all looked gorgeous for both weddings, and sure, it was their big day, not mine, so I just went along with what was needed. There are photos but  ain’t sharing.

 Aw, shame!

There’s a line in the poem about the tan: “that’s really there to catch a man.” Is that what’s happening in the story? Is that what happens in real life? 

Well, the whole message of the poem is about how there’s so much pressure on women to look a certain way and it’s all wrapped up in attractiveness and being desirable. It’s like: Men love this fake tan look, you look terrible without it and therefore undesirable so come buy it.

In the story the girl is buying it and wearing it because she doesn’t see anyone in magazines that is pale like her, she can’t see herself reflected. She wants to be desirable to men too, so that’s what that line is all about.

I believe it does happen in real life. Women are encouraged to spend a lot of time and money trying to make themselves attractive, desirable. It’s like total reversal; in the animal kingdom it’s the males that are the most beautiful, that have to do all the work to attract a female.

You talk about girls being told not to play too wildly, and you imagine a girl running around with her skirt pulled up over her head as a cape. Is that something you used to do? 

Well, I rarely wore dresses, in fact I fought and fought anytime I had to. I even hated wearing skirts to school, I always felt so exposed in them. Boys would put their hands up our skirts in school too and that made me mad. I used to hit the boys who did that. I don’t think little girls should be forced to wear anything they don’t want to. Or anyone for that matter.

My parents were really good, I was allowed to be the tomboy I was. I wasn’t forced into dresses too often, mostly just for Church. So I didn’t do the skirt over the head cape thing, but I have seen that happen all around me, little girls being put in dresses and then being told not to play the way they want to in case someone sees their underpants.

I played with the boys, in fact growing up I only had one friend who was a girl on our estate. Most of the time I played football with the boys. We played all sorts, we climbed trees, we built huts, we build go-karts, we lit fires, we dug holes and played on our bikes, we cycled to the lakes where I lived and jumped off the pier. I used to take things apart and make a diagram of the parts and then reassemble them. I used to love to see what was inside things, radios, golf balls, Rubik’s cubes…you name it, I took it apart.

I had an amazing adventure as a kid, I was allowed that much freedom. But I also was forced to wear a bra at a very young age, and I mean forced. I never wanted to but my mum and sisters said I had to, my breasts were too big not to. I got my period when I was just 10. I had to do washing up, ironing, make dinners. But play time was amazing.

Girls dresses impractical

Orlaith in a skirt

You mention the pressure to be “nice”. Do you think women ARE nicer than men? 

Haha. No. I don’t think women are nicer than men, I think some people are nicer than other people. The whole nice thing is a real pet hate of mine. I hate that women are expected to be kind and nice all the time. Like we’re not supposed to get angry, or speak out. I think fuck that.

How have we got to a point where the largest oppressed group in the world is women and as a group we’ve been conditioned to think that getting angry about that oppression is somehow un-lady-like and to be frowned upon? What we have is a lot of women walking around oppressed and very few empowered enough to do anything about it. HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN?

I mean, of course a lot of women do speak out, but if you think of women as 51% of the population, which I don’t think people do often, then in the grand scheme of things, there are very few women speaking out. Actually confident and empowered enough to fight for themselves.

It’s like mass brainwashing that’s been going on for centuries and I can’t help but take it very personally. I sometimes feel the heart of every single woman beating in my own chest, I feel them all in there and they’re desperate to break out of this oppression. They are angry, but they do not show it. That’s why I encouraged people to get angry; it’s the correct response to centuries of oppression. It’s the correct response to rape and violence. It’s the correct response to FGM. It’s the correct response to street harassment. We are human, humans get angry when wronged…full stop.

The thing is that angry women have been demonised throughout history, they are branded hysterical, or god forbid, lesbian. And I think that’s wrong. I have a lot of anger at things in the world but I’m not an angry person because I handle my anger, I channel it for good. I’m a happy-go-lucky type of person that just so happens to feel anger. It’s an essential human experience and I think it’s wrong to tell women that they shouldn’t feel it. It’s equivalent to telling men they shouldn’t show sadness or caring emotions. IT’S SO STUPID!

I don’t think women are nicer at all, but I do think we are conditioned to be the caring, nurturing types. We are conditioned to be placid and I really just sometimes feel like all the anger of every woman in the world is inside me. Likewise I feel like all the strength of every woman in the world is inside me too.

I don’t let the anger take over, I use it constructively. I use my voice. I try to speak up for others as well as myself. I think more women should show their anger. I don’t mean violence, but just be free enough to show that emotion and let it out…if it’s safe do so. Even the fact I have to say “if it’s safe to do so” illustrates my point. Like any woman should feel unsafe to show emotions, but the harsh reality is that it isn’t safe, for too many women- and there comes my anger again.

I think more men should be angry too, angry at the state of things for women. For their mothers, daughters, sisters. More men need to call out other men for the way they treat and talk about women. Feminism isn’t just a woman’s issue, it’s a human issue and more men need to act as well.

Finally and most importantly: Can we talk about bras? You ask for a moment of silence for “the sheer trauma of wearing a chest-squeezing, breath-stealing, man-made apparatus that is universally uncomfortable”. Were you wearing one during the talk?? Why/why not?

Haha, I was wearing a bra during the talk, if I’m out in public I’m almost always wearing one, and that’s because I’m not immune to societal pressure myself.

Breasts are so highly sexualised in the western world that not wearing a bra in public makes me feel very exposed. I remember going to the shop around the corner one time without a bra on. I was in and out in two minutes and I had a big chunky jumper on to cover the fact I wasn’t wearing one, and a guy in the shop whispered as he walked passed me: “No bra? Get your tits out love”.

I told him to go fuck himself of course, but I never really tried it since. I can’t stand being a fucking piece of meat for these thoughtless lad types. It really boils my blood, the level of entitlement they feel and if I’m honest, I can’t even get mad at them individually for that long, because they too are a product of patriarchy.

We need women to break out of the patriarchal shell we’ve been encased in and we need it to happen now! I’m doing my bit, the hardest part is getting women to realise they’re being oppressed. Getting people to realise women are still oppressed. We have this equality illusion going on and it’s very dangerous.

Women before us laid a path and it’s running out, we need to start laying a path for ourselves and that’s impossible to do when some people think the path is already finished. It’s far from finished. When one woman is hurting at the hands of men, then we all are. And I can feel it. So I do my bit.

Join in the conversation with Orlaith and me here in the comments or on Twitter, #BirdWithATale. If you would like to feature on the blog, get in touch. Happy Pride everyone!

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