After taking part in a debate on feminism, the Great British Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh has found herself accused of elitism. According to the Daily Mail, Tandoh “has admitted she thinks The Great British Bake Off is ‘crap TV’ and that the women who watch it are ‘silly’”. Of course, that isn’t anything like the message she was trying to convey while taking part in the Elle debate on whether feminism needs a rebrand. While I’m still not sure I agree with her point, I think this distinction is important. Feminists should be able to state their beliefs without everything being sent through the anti-feminist distortion machine, in which certain key words (in this case “crap TV” and “silly”) are matched to the most appropriate off-the-peg parody of feminist belief and then thrown back in the speaker’s face.
Obviously I can see some associations between this debate and the infamous-within-a-very-small-circle Mumsnet Can you be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist? one. In the latter the key words were “jam,” “heels” and “education”. Put them together and what do you get? A panel of four women who all think exactly the same thing, which is that feminists can’t make jam, wear heels or be stay-at-home mothers. And this myth takes on the status of absolute truth and anyone trying to counter it is accused of not being willing to debate (but who is willing to debate when the proposition being countered bears no resemblance to anything you actually said?). It creates an impossible scenario in which there can never be the slightest connection. The distortion-by-stereotype process is more powerful than words.
We need to find a way around this and, as ever, it’s been suggested that the ball is in feminism’s court. Do we need to change how we present ourselves? Should we learn a new vocabulary, avoid the wrong words, flee from all potential double meanings? Should we always wear heels just to be on the safe side? If everything we do is subject to over-interpretation, is the onus on us to make ourselves one-dimensional, rejecting all space for disagreement and debate? Is this what we have to do and, if we do it, will it be worth it in the end?
I’m not against finding new ways to prompt others to look at the world from a feminist perspective (indeed, I think it would be very odd to oppose it). I’ve nothing against what others might patronisingly call “being accessible”. I’ve never taken a gender studies course, my academic reading on the subject is limited and much of my early feminist thinking came in response to pop music (Neneh Cherry, Madonna, even Bananarama — I don’t care how odd and contradictory that sounds because it’s true). If feminism is for every woman it has to engage with a vast array of experiences and a wide range of languages and registers. If that sounds a little vague, I’m not particularly bothered. There has to be speech, lots of it, even if it’s noisy, complicated and taking place in several spheres. The alternative isn’t one voice but silence.
I’m aware some people don’t like this. Naturally, these are the people we should try to win over — but only up to a point. There’s a limit to the number of times you can hear “but feminism isn’t for me! I feel excluded because I’m [insert your own stereotype of what a feminist hates]! I don’t like the in-fighting!” There comes a point in which you have to say “well, I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel excluded, but I’m not the one operating the distortion machine. A broad collection of ideologies and movements should be inclusive and open to change, but this isn’t achieved through fear of misrepresentation. We don’t need to limit our vocabulary — on the contrary, we need more words.”