Whenever I go out I’m always irritating myself or whoever I’m with by dropping, fumbling or palming off my bundle of keys/wallet/phone that I carry about with me. But no matter how irritated I get, I refuse to get a handbag to put these essentials in. Why? Because I really don’t like them, and here’s why:
I have a problem with handbags because to me they are a glaring example of gender difference and possibly inequality. Caitlin Moran, one of my current favourite feminist writers has a good formula for gauging sexism and gender disparity, she says we must always ask “are the boys doing it?” and if not, why not? Well, even though there are ‘manbags,’ generally men don’t haul around everything they own everywhere they go. They don’t seem to have to. And I can’t understand why women have to. Ok, so men have pockets. But why are men’s clothes specifically designed to be like a wearable cabinet, whereas women’s clothes often aren’t tailored to include any practical storage (without looking like you’re planning for the apocalypse)?
When I was a kid, before going shopping my mum would ask me “Have you got your lady’s-bag?” At around 8-10 years old I didn’t know what to put in a handbag, or why I would need one, so once I just stuffed it full of tissues. This is an example of childhood gender socialization, wherein individuals are taught to emulate the roles, behaviours and qualities of their same gendered parents, thereby setting them up to go out into the world as a functional, normal, pink or blue person. Erving Goffman claimed that the social presentation of who we are/want to be is like a performance, and this is particularly so for gender. Gender is a social and cultural performance according to a certain script, roles, embodiment, and in this case, costume. So, part of what it means to perform femininity and thus, BE a woman, is to have a handbag full of ‘the essentials’ to continue to uphold a flawless performance of that femininity. So, basically, our culture is telling us that being a woman is messy and requires extensive equipment in order to just be ourselves in public.
Maybe because I’m a pretty low maintenance kind of lady (I don’t wear make up or use hair products), I find it hard to think what women need to take everywhere with them so badly that men don’t need, other than perhaps, pads/tampons. In Derek Blasburg’s (2010) book, Classy: Exceptional advice for the extremely modern lady, he kindly offers a whole section on “How To Pack A Bag” in which he states that “You can judge a lot about a woman by the state of her purse”. Not only does this assume a woman HAS a purse, but it also claims that something about what is in there/what it looks like in there is an indicator of her social worth. Wow. Nice one. Blasburg then gives you handy tips for what to put in an array of multipurpose purses from “just the bare essentials” to “your daily survival kit” which can contain anything from make up, phone chargers, dental floss, a spare pair of shoes and poetry books. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think people should be organized and prepared regardless of gender, I just think it’s somewhat odd that women are taught to carry around stuff all the time, but men don’t have to. Men need phone chargers, floss, breath mints, hand/face wipes and stuff like that too, don’t they? Maybe they just borrow their accompanying lady’s stuff from her Gucci survival kit, in which case the whole handbag thing turns women into perpetual sherpers. Great.
Basically, I think handbags hold women down. Ever been at a club with a bag and you don’t know what to do with it? Some creepy guy probably offered to hold it for you (in return for, you know, sex). This might be a bit of a leap, but I think handbags are almost symbolic of the womb, but in a negative way. Women’s reproductive functions are what have held them back throughout history. The feminine power of fertility, symbolized by the womb, although awe-inspiring, has stopped many women from following their dreams and reaching their full potential and autonomy. I think, like the womb, the handbag is a cumbersome weight on femininity, which can be positive for some, but a hampering burden for others.
** Afterword –
It became apparent to me that the last paragraph of this blog has a very similar thesis to one in Germaine Greer’s (1999) The Whole Woman, in which she also likens the womb to a handbag, or luggage, asking, as I have done “Why do women always carry bags, and why are those bags so heavy? Why is it that most women will not go out of the house without bags loaded with objects of no immediate use? Is the tote bag an exterior uterus, the outward sign of the unmentionable burden?” I guess this blog is a reiteration of her message, a little “I Hear You, Sista!” from a decade later.