Today’s Guardian features a piece by Jonathan Freedland advising male politicians on what’s required to appeal to the laydeez. I’ve had a good read and as a full-on, humourless feminist, I’d say it passes the test. The basic rules are:
- don’t be a rape-excusing, anti-choice dickhead
- when considering new policies, don’t forget that thing about “women being people, too”
And who can argue with that? Not me, and I tend to be someone who could get embroiled in a heated exchange with a corpse. So why is it that the piece still makes me feel so uneasy?
Freedland has set out to define “what trouble beckons for men when they talk to women”:
Not all men, of course. But for a certain breed of male politician, it seems the territory marked “women’s issues” is a minefield.
And already I’m starting to cringe. By “not all men” Freedland immediately excludes himself from the sorry breed of males he’s decided to advise. Even so, given that he groups together basic concerns regarding healthcare, discrimination and interpretations of the law into one handy “women’s issues” bundle, you do wonder just how different he really is. I’m not suggesting he’s as toxic as Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, George “bad sexual etiquette” Galloway and Craig “[insert alleged rape victim's name]” Murray. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure he should be giving himself that pat on the back just yet.
Obviously men will have their own opinions regarding abortion and rape (both as linked and separate issues). I wouldn’t expect them not to, nor would I expect them not to express them. Freedland can write what he likes – and I’m relieved that, given the competition, he’s not going for gold in the “shit things to write about rape” relay. What concerns me is that there seems to be a distinct pattern in how responses to rape apologism or anti-abortion extremism are managed in public discourse. As far as I can see, what usually happens is this:
- woman-hating man of influence lets slip something that exposes his prejudices
- many people are outraged, women in particular
- women write/present cogent responses to the occurrence, based not least on their experiences as real, live women
- liberal media men kindly step in to translate female responses into more legitimate ones, and to benevolently grant women autonomy over their own bodies all over again
- women say “thanks … I think?”
Does this look familiar? It seems to me that so many of the “authoritative” voices who end up pontificating over the rights and wrongs of these things are male. Women contribute to the debate, but it’s fed back into a media which is still dominated by male opinion-makers and into a political sphere weighed down with men who see women, if not as walking wombs, then at least as walking votes. Does this matter if such men are saying the right things, and even proposing the right policies? I think it does. Because it’s not real autonomy if it remains dependent on the approval of those who don’t share these bodies and experiences. It’s still not “my body, my choice” if it also needs to be their choice, too.
In his piece Freedland mentions the views of “one ardently feminist colleague”. I don’t know who this is, but I get the impression that Freedland would not describe himself as “ardently feminist”. For “ardently feminist” I can’t help reading “biased (unlike me)”. And lo and behold, Freedland does indeed go on to qualify his feminist colleague’s views (“but it might be simpler than that”). It’s as though there are two levels of discourse: the women’s views (primary source material), and the men’s interpretations (bringing the babble together into something academically sound and coherent). You witness this presumption of superiority all the time on Newsnight and Question Time (or at least you used to; these days I only half-watch these shows as I’m busy hiding behind the couch).
I accept that women are still getting to present their opinions – the Guardian also features a debate between Bonnie Greer and Lisa Longstaff on the extradition of Julian Assange (although the debate is still chaired by a man – phew!). I nevertheless find it hard to think of a female equivalent for the entitled tone certain men adopt in relation to this supposed “argument”. I am, sort of, grateful for pieces such as this, yet what it boils down to is one man telling some other men that they’re not fit to talk about rape (whereas the author clearly presumes himself to be). It’s not just a dead-end , but it also undermines the very claims to female independence being made. What’s more, you start to hear alarm bells warning of the drift towards a compromise definition of rape, abortion and what women’s bodies and selves fundamentally are. It’s not the view of a rapist, but neither will it be the view of one of those worryingly “ardent” feminists. It will be the voice of so-called reason, a male voice, and it will grant us a freedom that is worthless because it was never a man’s to grant.