Parrot Wives: A Church-Leader Photo Phenomenon

“Parrot, parrot, parrot wives.  Parrot, parrot, parrot wives” (sung to the tune of Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’.) 

It is a strange and peculiar phenomenon that Nick and I have noted…..’The Parrot Wife’.  Go onto a church website; normally a charismatic, reformed, new stylee congregation – you know the ones with cool fonts (the type-sets rather than the christening kind) , the super-duper programme and the relevant worship; and there you may behold the parrot wife.  She may be found on the ‘who’s who’ or the ‘about us’ page under the ‘leadership’ section.  The spiel will probably outline her husband’s leadership role, his favoured football team and his choice of ‘hot wife’.  She will most likely be named as his ‘better half’ and linked, bound, tethered to their ‘beautiful children’.  She is his and her place is with his children.  The photo of parrot wife shows her perched awkwardly on his shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot.  A mate who repeats what it’s told, flaps at points but remains loyal throughout.

Behold the awkward side hug.  Almost conjoined in a lovely side hug – smiles all round – adoring looks galore!

I guess it’s difficult to take a good photo for a church website – I think maybe I have watched too much America’s Top Model and expect Nigel Barker to conjure up some magic thing of beauty – but these photos strike me as indicative of an underlying issue.  Parrot wife and awkward-side-hug are an extension of their husband.  They are not their own person.  They very often don’t get their own write-up on the website beyond their role at home and with children.  They are an appendage. like another tool on a swiss army knife, at their husbands disposal at any given point; preaching, funny one-liner, wife – tools of the trade.   A ‘hot wife’ is part and package of the role of church leader.  In a recent book written about marriage, aimed at Christians, I noted that wives were told their own calling and gifting as people is sacrificed for the furthering of their husband’s calling.  I struggle with this idea – I thought we are personally accountable as well as community responsible.  I don’t believe that marriage requires me to become a parrot, or an awkward-side-hug, but more fully me and my husband more fully him.

I think I’m tired of all this.  Church, for me, is about encouraging people to grow and become more of who God intended them to be.  The Bible seems brimmed full of talk about freedom and liberation from the constraints and ties of sometimes warped human ideals.  I thought faith was about seeing each other as beautiful and limitless because God is beautiful and limitless.  Instead again and again I feel discouraged by the way women are objectified – whether it be through being plastered on the front of ‘FHM’ or being paraded as the pastor’s wife, an accessory rather than a person.  I will not be a parrot wife.

Silencer….

I am a strong advocate of women being able to speak publicly about life, faith, politics, hell anything that isn’t just ‘I don’t know much about the gold standard, but I do know about fluffy kittens’!  So I find it interesting that there still seems to be a lack of women speaking publicly when we are decades past votes for women and the notion that women can have a voice…..well maybe we are still journeying on from votes for women to a place of having a voice.  Still it’s puzzling that women still fail to be much more than tokenly represented in government, as CEOs of businesses and in position of leadership and voice within the Church.  What is the hold-up?  I guess the structural machines of discrimination and prejudice take a while to get their creaky joints working.  And misogyny is still very much at large.  But I wonder what it is that stops women themselves seizing opportunities and running with them.  Sprinting off with them at such a speed that there’s no stopping them?!

I love to talk, I really do.  When I was about 8 I wanted to speak at the Christmas service at church.  I diligently wrote my talk.  I practiced it out-loud to myself underneath my covers before bed (I was a sad child!) ironing out mistakes, carving it with care.  I never did deliver that talk, and have never since.  I still have that burning desire to speak publicly, but I have very few places or contexts to practice.  I’m not sure a dozen drunk young people on a double-decker bus on a Saturday night would appreciate me pontificating on ’empowerment’ or ‘activism’!  So instead I keep my talks to myself in the car as I drive to work, or in my head as a i drift off to sleep.  I wonder whether I am the only one doing this?  Maybe I am odd!  But i think the underlying principle is ‘I want to do this more but I’m not sure how’.  So why am I not sprinting off with opportunities to make my voice heard – well I don’t know how?  How do you go about doing that?  Where are the ‘routes in’ for women to be heard in different forums in life?  I know some must exist, they have to, but how can we ensure these routes are accessible? 

I find it hard to write this because it sounds like I am just shouting ‘I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING’ – which I do – but I also want to hear from others.  I want to enriched by a diversity of sounds, stories, thoughts, ideas – things I agree with, things I don’t.  I feel scared of writing this because it is exposing – I desperately want to play a part in what’s going on around me, and I do in so many ways, but I’m not content.  I want to be heard and I want to hear others.

I think one of the issues is that in the ‘Christian world’ at least, we have a set ‘formula’ for a ‘successful’ talk.  It should be smattered with jokes, funny on-liners, lots of little anecdotes which lead to a crescendo of heart-warming / heart-wrenching (depending on the topic and the event) climax.  I am being particularly facetious today (blame the strawberry laces I’m consuming!), but I wonder if you have some experience of Christian talks whether that description brought a knowing wry smile to your face?  I am not saying having a pattern is bad – heck we have a history of liturgy – but I wonder whether this is a hard formula to just pick-up as a woman.  Not because we are not capable but because we may not have had the contexts in which to practice and hone that formula.  I see some parallels with women comedians who, I think, are sometimes judged more harshly than their male counterparts.  Are women speakers critiqued more harshly than men?  It often seems to me that men are judged individually on merit, and how they sit with regards to this tried and tested pattern – “Oh such and such (insert male Christian speaker’s name) was great today” or “I didn’t enjoy him quite as a much”, where as with women I tend to hear “See women speakers are great just listen to (insert women Christian speaker’s name)” or “See that’s why women shouldn’t speak”.  I guess I am blabbing a bit now and falling very soundly into the anecdotal category – still I wonder if there is any truth to be had here?  How can we ensure there are places for women to practice speaking publicly?

I also wonder whether that formula way of speaking is great for some, in some places, but not for all.  Is there a chance that maybe having more women feeling free and confident to share their voice may bring a point of difference into the melting pot of ideas and theology?  There are so many brilliant women who are raising their voices – let’s have more!

Lastly, I think women stop themselves.  I know there are times when people are looking around saying ‘where can we find a women to talk about this?’ and there is no response.  Why is that?  I think that the image of confident woman is blighted by words like ‘bossy’, ‘up herself”, ‘arrogant’.  I am certainly aware that putting myself forward for anything is risky and again exposing.  It is so much a part of who I am, wrapped up in my own identity, the core of me, that to parade what I believe to be something I can do allows others to knock me down, and I won’t want to get back again.  I am frightened that if I say I want to speak people will say ‘what have you got to say?’, or ‘what could you actually bring?’, or ‘who are you anyway’ or worse, nothing at all.  I am my own worst enemy at times.  I want to stay just behind the starting blocks, watching others, visualising my own race – practicing my talk under the bedcovers at night.

Mr Bossy?

Today I met with an amazing woman who is doing some brilliant work with young people locally.  She is great, inspirational and focused, so I was surprised today to find her perplexed and down.  We chatted, she told me about some feedback she had received from someone at the college at which she is studying.  One of the comments that had upset her, was one stating she was ‘bossy’. Bossy?!  Bossy?!  Where to start!  She is certainly assertive, she is certainly able to articulate her own view-point, she is certainly able to delegate responsibility to others in an appropriate manner, but I really take issue with the idea that she is bossy.

It got me thinking ‘how many men have I heard referred to as ‘bossy”? Silence for a moment…..sigh….uh none!  The word ‘bossy’ is so ugly and speaks to me of ugly things.  It is also a label I only see attached to women.  A man is ‘assertive’ or ‘directive’ – positive attributes- a woman ‘bossy’.  To me the label speaks volumes of a societal idea of how women should behave.  Women should be demure, passive and unsure.  Women should be indecisive, a little ignorant and placid.  Men should be decisive and assertive.

It’s troubling when I work with young women who are practicing being grown-ups and role-playing what they think that means by doing that passive, ‘I couldn’t possibly make a decision’, ‘I just couldn’t say no to him’ thing.  Heaven forbid they make a choice, say what they think or say ‘no thanks’ to giving a boy a blow-job in the public toilets!  They don’t want to be weird – they want to fit in, and fitting in means aligning themselves to these stereotypes of what they think it means to be a woman.  Key attributes celebrated in women seem to increasingly be returning to passivity and naivety.

With Tinie Tempah spewing lyrics which include ‘I just want to have…I’m on a mission, I don’t even want to kiss her, I mean I won’t even miss ya, When I’m done with ya’ (Frisky) is it any wonder that young women are seen as objects to be used, abused and discarded.  And the voice of the woman? Silent.  And the role of the woman? Compliant.  It is so difficult to try to enable young women to make more informed life choices,to  flourish and reach potential, when the messages bombarding them are squeezing them into ill-fitting, abusive moulds.  Even the voices coming out of some of the church are, in my opinion, in this same vein of stifling stereotypes and inappropriate expectations.  Women are to fulfil some 50s housewife image in order to succeed in what it means to be a ‘biblical women’ and to honour God. 

With the seeming revival of all things princess, one who tends to be a damsel-in-distress wanting desperately to be liberated by an assertive, directive man, I hold my head in my hands (metaphorically you understand – I tried to type in this position but it proved clumsy!).  I know bossy is one word.  I know I probably think a little too hard.  I know a messy quickie in the toilets is a bit of a leap from someone being called bossy, but I can see the links – views of women, roles of women, expectations of women.  It is not until people become more at ease with women being able to be decisive, offer direction and be assertive, that we will be able to see young women practicing being grown-up in a healthy and free way.  So I’m advocating the expulsion of ‘Little Miss Bossy’  and she can take that placid pappy princess with her!.

No more nails…

I have done quite a lot of work with young women but I have become increasingly distressed by the trend to do ‘pamper sessions’ as a way of single-sex youth work.  I am not saying this kind of work hasn’t been positive for some, but it seems now to have been packaged, branded and accepted as the only way to work successfully with girls.  I am, to be honest, sick of the ‘pappy’ nature of so much of the work with young women I see and hear about.  It is not good enough to just reproduce the same old crap.  It is not good enough to blindly put on the same old things without critique and without any attempt to determine needs, and seek to enable young women to address them. 

It seems ridiculously paradoxical that we do ‘self-esteem’ work whilst surrounded by beauty paraphernalia.  How can we spout a message of ‘self-esteem is not related to how you look’ whilst in the midst of yet another pamper session, manicure night or fashion show?  The words we speak are entirely overridden by the actions we display.  Adolescence is complex enough without introducing these paradoxes.  I know of some work with young women that even advocates and uses the teaching of ‘etiquette and deportment’ in an attempt to help young women feel better about themselves.  My blood is boiling as I type this – what century are we living in?  These techniques smack of one thing to me – ‘wifedom’ and wifedom in the spooky, scary Stepford Wives style.  Producing and reproducing young women who are rigidly robotic in their ability to sit nicely and use the correct knife and fork.  Young women who will make ‘good wives’ – as if this is the only aspiration they could possibly have.  As if, if you look right and act right you will find yourself a good man – or more likely you will be found by a good man, for you can surely only be a passive object, a damsel in distress waiting for a rescuer (who values someone who can walk with a pile of books on their head – rather than ideas in them).

The methodology we adopt in working with young people is, to me, as important as the substance.  I believe we should be fostering  environments where young women are encouraged to think for themselves, to be assertive, to make decisions and to be active rather than passive.  I believe we need to move away from strategies where we do things for and to young women – where we ‘do’ their hair, where we ‘do’ their make-up, where we ‘do’ their nails.  This type of work can only perpetuate this crippling cultural stereotype about female passivity and eventual objectification.  Women can be, and are, complicit in this passivity so much of the time in my experience.  Where are the girls who can stand up for themselves?  Where are the girls who can make a decision?  Work with young men tends to be much more active in its approach – football, outdoor sports, go-karting.  Young men are encouraged to take risks, to be assertive and decisive. 

I am conscious that I have a tendency to over-analyse things(!) but I can’t help but see a link here in the Church.  Woman as passive, as someone’s wife, as someone’s mother, as a someone to be rescued, as someone who looks right and plays her part.  Is work with young women in the Church a mechanism to shape them into the stereotypes we are most comfortable with?  Femininity in a way we feel safe with.  For if women are silent, demure, indecisive and passive, they won’t rock the boat.  They won’t ask questions about inequality, injustice and oppression.  If they’re busy doing their hair, make-up and nails they’ll have no time to lead and speak and step into the fullness of who they are.

I want to smash-up some pamper sessions.  I want to take girls tree-climbing, protest-marching, campaigning.  I want to ditch the ‘nicey-nicey’ stuff and do things that make a difference to others – that for me is what really impacts self-esteem.  If you can help bring positive change for others, it is near impossible to not be changed positively yourself.  Here’s to messiness, hairs out-of-place and no more nails!

Submission…..

Sometimes I genuinely find it hard to say I’m a Christian. 

I just read an article about wives submitting to their husbands.  One of the key points it made was that wives should submit to their husbands even if the decision the husband makes is against God’s will.  Women, it seems, have no self-responsibility, no brains, and no spiritual discernment.  I don’t understand it.  Did God make me just as a robot, capable of popping out babies, being a ‘homemaker’ and smiling sweetly as the clever men talk over my head?  

I work with young women many of whom are in relationships which have the ‘smell’ of domestic violence; controlling boyfriends, physical violence even sexual abuse.  In chatting and supporting women like this I constantly reiterate the need for them to think about themselves, to see themselves as more than someone’s girlfriend, see themselves as someone who isn’t just in the business of pleasing someone else.  And then I read this ‘Christian’ stuff.  Advocate all responsibility, blindly follow your partner, disconnect any relationship you have with God.  Is this something I can believe?  Is this what it means to be a Christian?

Nick (my husband) and I have never felt we needed to play the ‘headship’ game.  We have never, as yet, had to make a decision that we felt so differently about that he had to ‘lead me’.  We have been married for 8 years and together 13 years.  We have had a baby (and one on the way), moved house, taken numerous jobs, suffered loss, been on holiday, had fights but we have talked constantly, negotiated all the time, been pissed off, but always forgiven and had fun being with each other along the way.  Surely relationships are about balance and mutuality.  I submit to him as he submits to me as we submit to God. 

I know people argue that submission is not about value and worth but it is.  I know people argue it isn’t about power and corruption, but it is; how can it not be we’re human?  To blindly believe because someone has a penis he is more capable of decision making seems ludicrous…..unless brain power, mental prowress and sensibility are contained within a man’s member (I don’t think so).  To blindly believe that a man can be the ‘head’ without abusing power at points seems naive.  We have all been tainted by the fall, but reconciliation is part of salvation.  I believe a marriage that tries to establish reconciliation of gender and relationships is vital.  Maybe I am just a little off kilter….maybe I should shut up and submit!

Blindfolds….

In ‘Dragon’s Den’ style I have something I would like to pitch to the Christian market….and what a market it is (but that’s for another day!).  Drumroll please…………..

……yes a blindfold.  It could come in a variety of styles; sporty, smart, geek-chic, and even more colours.  It could be emblazoned with mottos, logos and as many semi-colons and capital Xs as possible (I know the market!). 

But why?  Well one of the people I love most in the world is involved in a church group which in my mind is a little strange.  Now strange can of course be amazing, so many of the wierdest people I know are those who live out faith in the most provocative and obedient ways.  This group however, seems to believe that men and women should behave in some odd ways.  My friend is a very beautiful girl… I mean show stopping beautiful.  What makes her even more attractive is that she is such an amazing person as well (makes you sick!).  She loves Jesus and is striving to follow him in all she does.  This group though, instead of celebrating  her for who she is has taken to chipping away her, battering her confidence and pushing her away.  This beautiful girl, let’s call her Eve (!), wears the clothes that many 20 year olds wear.  She looks good.  The group thinks she looks too good.  The other day one of the group, appointed specifically for the task, told Eve she should start wearing clothers 2x her size so as not to distract the boys.  I was not aware that dowdy, frumpy, non-attractiveness was so scientifically defined by wearing clothes exactly 2x your size – an important point for us all to note!  Eve was upset….well more than that.  This amazing, faithful girl under critque and judgement for being beautiful.  Now I have worked with young people for over ten years and have encountered many, many young people who use their dress as a way of proclaiming their own insecurities.  Young people who scream, ‘I need someone’, young people who try to use sexuality as a way to buy affection….Eve is not like that.  She dresses well, she could wear a sack and still be beautiful and probably accused of causing others to sin!  This issue it seems isn’t Eve’s.  She is not the one who is jealous, or lustful or ungracious, or judgemental.  Where is the responsible of those people?

Listening to Radio 4 one day I heard something talking about their response to Muslim women wearing the Burka.  Although the person in question affirmed a woman’s right to choose this if she wished, she also posed an important question; ‘Why if the Burka is about modesty, does it merely rely on a women?  Surely it would be more cost effective to just give every man a thin strip of fabric to cover his eyes!’  I think there is a real return for Christians to this question of modesty.  I believe that our bodies are amazing and should be treated with respect, for example not objectified, but I also believe they are made for enjoyment.  Why does a Christian response to modesty 99 out of 100 times seem to be about how a women dresses?  Where is the responsibility of the onlooker?  Didn’t Jesus say something about even looking lutfully as being equated to adultery.  The empathsis of his address was placed on the onlooker.  I am not suggesting girls should parade around in literally nothing, but I believe they should be able to dress in ways that they are comfortable and confident in. 

So the blindfold is my solution to the issue!  My friend can still wear her cool sassy clothes, in the correct size, and at last those who find it so offensive can overcome their own issue.

Feminist Jesus

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to write a paper or do a talk on ‘Jesus:  The Feminist’.   I’m not sure who would read or listen to what I have to say, but practising my arguments helps pass the time when I should be doing other things like work!  In the interests of research the other day I drew on the best of academic resources available to me….Google.  Firstly, I read a very articulate article on Jesus as a feminist which made me think I still need to polish my own rants.  Secondly I found a disgusting, offensive and totally abhorant website basically conveying the author’s opinion that women are second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom.  Nick, my husband, immediately told me to leave the site in concern that I may engage in one of my tirades – website tourettes – against the ‘author’.  It was just so inticing to read though!  The arguments put across were irrational, unbiblical and stank of misogyny.  My favourite line had to be “Not one man has ever had an abortion!” as seeming justification that men are righteous before God and women evil.  I think he failed to perceive the anatomical limitations of his argument somehow.

Sadly this kind of attitude, although in this case very extreme, seems to underline so much of the Christian thinking I have encoutered.  From the raised eyebrows of  ‘Oh so you used to be your husband’s line manager’ to the ‘feminism is from satan’ I have struggled to equate the Jesus I read of in the gospels with the one that thinks I am a little less (or in some cases a lot less) valuable than a man.  In the words of George Orwell  “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others

So what to do?  Give it all up?  succumb to the call of home-baking, home-making, baby-making, baby-rearing, always endearing, hospitable, unflappable, unintelligible, unquestioning wife and mother? (Not that I think being a ‘stay at home’ mummy is in any way wrong – just not very me!)  I am afraid I can’t – much to my husband’s and daughter’s relief (I really can’t cook well).  Onwards with the challenge in the belief that equality, fairness and justice are at the very heart of God.