Reducing a woman you’ve never met to her physicality is not a compliment; it’s weird and inappropriate.

Crafting the first sentence of a column that will touch on sexism often feels like an impossible task.

If you start too aggressively, you'll alienate people. If you share a personal anecdote you'll be labelled an emotional whiner. If you mention the word "feminism", your column will be a real page-turner, which is not such a good thing when it appears in its entirety on one page.

I wanted to start with something like this: "Strong. Powerful. Loud. Assertive. Woman. One of these things is not like the others. Or so the status quo would have us believe."

But I knew I'd lose a significant group of readers before I'd reached the second paragraph. I would be summarily dismissed, turned inside out and folded in half, or forsaken for a piece of clickbait before I'd had half a chance to state my case.


I watched a talk this week in which Jill Soloway, creator of TV show Transparent, described the feeling of being "too much". It may sound like an odd thing to say, but it rang true for me. I've often worried about exactly the same thing.

When a woman is "too much" - too strong, powerful, loud, and/or assertive, she is a challenge, an oddity that throws the whole system into flux. Because if there's one thing a woman is not meant to do, it's rock the boat.

A woman that dares to defy the expectations of her gender, or to speak up against sexism must be immediately belittled lest she takes it into her pretty head that she's a) right b) equal or c) better than the men who seek to tear her down.

The past few weeks have been an interesting time to be a woman. Against the backdrop of the asinine masculine embodiment itself, Donald Trump, our local gender politics took centre stage - first with Max Key's stunning display of intellectual prowess ("real men ride women"), then with Paul Henry's long and leering treatise on a young women's "titties".

Understandably, both remarks left a number of Kiwi women less than pleased. Many of us were moved to speak out in some way against such brazen sexism. The responses we received often proved our point.

I decided out of principle that I wouldn't appear on the Paul Henry Show on Monday. The retaliatory comments my decision generated revealed what I already well knew: Paul Henry and Max Key are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexism in New Zealand.

Quieter, smaller, younger, meeker, milder. We're supposed to take up less space by having the perfect bikini body.

In one notable tweet, Martin Devlin told me that my decision was "grand-standy [sic]" and that I should've gone on the show as planned to "talk like adults about it". In the space of one sentence I was essentially accused of being attention-seeking and childish. Too much. If you can't beat her, belittle her.

The very same Devlin minimised Key's outburst as an example of acting like "all young men do". Key's homophobic and misogynistic slur, according to Devlin, should simply be dismissed: "Big f-ing deal".


If one prefers not to be so blatant in one's belittling, there are a host of other options available.

A personal favourite of mine is the use of pet names - the cherry on top of a slice of patronising pie. There are few things more frustrating than being called, "sweetheart", "dear" or "hunny [sic]" by a strange man as he seeks to denigrate you, as I was this week.

The pet name is a pat on the head to a woman who needs to be brought down a peg. Too much. If you can't beat her, belittle her.

A lot of the language used to describe women is subconsciously infantilising.

Last week I heard a male boss describe his adult female employees as "the girls". It's no accident that most street harassment often begins with "hey baby". Our breasts become "titties", and it's no big deal when a strange man appraises them.

We're supposed to be proud, because every young woman clearly loves it when older men ogle at our chests. Or, if we're offended, we're reduced to some kind of caricature ("Outraged and Proud, of Remuera"). And if we didn't hear the comments in the first place, there's nothing to be upset about. Because we all know that men are allowed to say whatever they want about women when the women they're talking about can't hear them. It's just locker room talk, after all.

The thing is, whether we hear the sexist comments or not is irrelevant.

You don't have to hear objectifying remarks to feel the gaze of a strange man on your breasts. You don't have to read about the merits of various types of "titties" to know that some man at some point has rated you out of 10.

What men remarking on random women's appearances don't seem to realise is that a nice comment from a partner, husband, wife or close friend is totally different to a stranger feeling entitled to talk about our bodies.

Reducing a woman you've never met to her physicality is not a compliment; it's weird and inappropriate.

It's a hangover from a problematic past, but even today society tells women that we are supposed to be less.

Quieter, smaller, younger, meeker, milder. We're supposed to take up less space by having the perfect bikini body, we're supposed to be less offended, less vocal, less threatening. We're supposed to humour sexism good-naturedly. We're not supposed to be "too much".

The truth is that we are only "too much" because we are outgrowing traditional femininity and encroaching upon territory originally reserved for men. Belittling us is simply an attempt to force us to be small enough to fit into a structure that wasn't made for us.

Thankfully, there are deep cracks in the foundations. They can belittle us all they want, but we're beating down the doors.