Wonder, Men and Women

I was having a coffee with P in a shopping mall café. A woman in her early twenties walked in and sat down a couple of tables away. She was wearing a flimsy green dress that barely covered her breasts, no bra. It was so intentional that I studied her face, thinking how young she was and wondering whether she needed help. She looked back at me with feigned indifference, took out a book on physics or something, and pretended to read, sitting up very straight, breasts pert and at attention.

After a few minutes, her boyfriend came to the table with coffee and cakes, and I realised that there was some kind of erotic game going on. The boy was excited, a little out of control, talking too much. Just by being there, P and I and all the other customers had been sucked into their play. Though I knew this, and it vaguely irritated me, I found my eyes straying back to the couple as they kissed lightly and a half-moon of nipple fell out of the meagre fabric.

As they left, she looked defiantly at me and anyone else whose eye she could catch, and I realised that for her the whole episode was also a statement on freedom, gender, norms. I remembered a man I used to know, who loved to create elaborate erotic fantasies to be played out in public spaces – but the point was always that it was under the radar, that they were a secret shared only by two. Those were also subversive acts, a thumbing of the nose at the corporate role he played elsewhere in life – but the girl in the café was more honest about it. She didn’t think she had anything to lose. On the contrary, she was staking a claim.

P and I continued on to the movies, and saw Wonder Woman. I marvelled at my own reaction to Gal Gadot’s physical prowess: it really was wonderful to see her so strong, so able, so sensitive and beautiful. If more action movies were made by women, with women in the leading roles, would I, and other women, like the genre more? P said that to him it didn’t matter – regardless of the gender of the hero(ine), he identified with him/her, just like in dreams. I remembered with pleasure the soft but firm limbs of the Amazon warriors and the determined glint in their eyes.

As I walked back home that evening by the sea, I saw a few young people cleaning up the remains of their picnic. Music drifted towards me on the soft, warm air. One of the figures detached itself from the others and headed towards the pier, intent on a swim. Only as I came closer did I realise that it was a young man, and that he was entirely naked. He was at peace, relaxed. The culturally induced blindness that accompanies sea dips and saunas in Finland immediately switched on in me, and I passed by him with a half-nod. All was harmonious and peaceful, the men paid me no heed, but a part of me was alert anyway. It was an isolated place.

That night I couldn’t sleep. As I tossed and turned, I remembered a dinner with gay friends a couple of weeks earlier. We had talked about how well everything is here and now, that they could travel safely and get treated with respect and friendliness, and that I, as a single woman, had control over my destiny and could also travel safely in many parts of the world. In my bed, I thought what an absurd conversation that had been. As society develops and grows more permissive, inequality and repression take more subtle forms. The girl in the café had been defiant and on a mission, the boy going into the sea was utterly at ease. Women still get tearily emotional at a female lead in an action movie, and gay men have to pick their holiday destinations carefully. Only when everyone is at ease, everywhere, are we where we should be as a species. The fight goes on, and we better not forget it.