I stumbled across this image on the discussion boards at Mumsnet, where it was getting a pretty rough reception, after it had been sent to a commenter’s daughter during a break-up. I’d seen it before, but since it has so much casually wrong about it, I thought I’d take it apart too. As with some previous posts on here, I’m not analysing it because I think it’s the worst and most evil thing that has ever been said to a young woman, but the opposite. It’s apparently supportive and helpful – at worst a bit trite and anodyne – but it quietly encodes a lot of sexist and damaging attitudes about gender and sex. Really quite a lot. So I thought I’d try a list, and would welcome commenters adding any of their own…
- It starts by saying that girls are like objects. Boys in this analogy get to be humans, but girls get to be a still life. A basic point, and one which may seem to be missing the point of an analogy, in which things are compared to other things. But metaphors have weight, and they can reveal hidden assumptions about what we assume is like another thing. They can show up patterns and grooves in our thinking. And, in fact, only one person is being the subject of an analogy here. In the apple tree world, boys are still boys. Only girls are objects.
- It assumes that dating is a process by which boys select and achieve the girls they want. Girls have no part in this process, they simply have to wait to be chosen. Again, I could be accused of not knowing how to metaphor. But this isn’t too far from how a lot of dating advice and popular media sees the world. Men don’t like women who’re too forward. They like to feel like the pursuer. Pretend to be less clever than you are. Don’t mention that you earn more than him. Wait for him to call back.
- It encourages young women to locate their worth in their difficulty as a prize. Not that there’s anything wrong with a young woman liking to be inaccessible to male attention, but here it’s being valued because of how it appears to a boy, not because it’s what she likes.
- It sets girls against each other, suggesting that the reason one woman is having an unhappy time emotionally is other women, rather than the men she is dating. It suggests romantic and sexual relationships are a zero-sum game in which some people win by ensuring that others lose. Despite the imagery of physical exertion and achievement, it doesn’t say that the boys are in competition with each other, rather that the girls are competing to be picked.
- It repeats damaging ideas that sexually active women are somehow rotten or worthless. “Easy” is the term used here, playing into both unpleasant notions that a girl can become less valuable by acting upon sexual feelings, and the idea that girls should be compared like objects.
- It thus sets up a paradox, in which the imaginary girl at the top of the tree is valuable so long as she is difficult and inaccessible, but will lose her value as soon as she allows herself to be part of a relationship. If the girls below her were “rotten” and “easy” because they had sex, how is she any different once the boy climbs to the higher branches? Purity culture in action: she is valued by how long she refrains from sexual activity, but sexual activity is the standard by which she is judged.
- It genders virtues in very traditional ways. Boys here have to be brave and not mind about getting physically hurt. Girls have to…stay in their place and wait to be picked.
- It equates sex with the consumption and destruction of one person by another. The boys in the analogy are eating the apples, otherwise the references to the “rotten” ones makes no sense. So the romantic and sexual relationship set up by the image involves one active participant and one passive participant, one who consumes and one who is consumed.
- In setting up girls as a prize to be achieved with various levels of difficulty, it reinforces the model of romantic love as a particular kind of stalking which is justified by male emotion. The refusal to accept that she’s not interested, the persistence in pursuing her, the belief that she doesn’t know how great you could be together: these are tropes we all recognise from movies and books. And they’re harmful in practice.
- It follows a long-standing association between female sexuality, sin and apples. It’s a less ambiguous version of the traditional sexist reading of the Garden of Eden, which has simply elided the difference between Eve and the apple, and simply decided that women are fruit and their sexuality is rotten. A rotting apple is often associated – for obvious reasons – with mortality. So we’re getting pretty close to sex = death (and both are women’s fault.)
- It assumes that it’s natural for men to want to have sex with women whom they also despise. The “rotten apples” at the bottom of the tree (whom the boys are eating instead of climbing higher) are objectively unpleasant, but it’s assumed that the boys will eat them. It should shock us that our culture assumes men will despise and dislike women whom they also want to have sex with. It casts women in a very dangerous role. This can appear in the violent resentment of the Men’s Rights Movement, who rail against women’s supposed power over them. It can surface as the callousness expressed towards a rape victim who drank alcohol that night or flirted with the man who raped her. It is continually emphasized by pornography which imagines sex as a spectrum of things which are more pleasurable for a man if they are unpleasant for a woman. It’s reinforced in the advice given to young men by the media about how to persuade their girlfriends into certain acts, as if sex is a game which has to be lost by someone in order to be won by someone else.
Those are the points which immediately struck me about this image – I’d love to hear how you see it.