On Wednesday evening I had a revelation in the chip shop. Well, two in fact. The first was that I do not have to spend money on individual pickled onions to go with my chips, given that I have a jar of Hayward’s in the fridge at home. The second was that I spend far too much time hate-reading on twitter.
Over a year ago, I stopped hate-reading the Mail Online and have never looked back. I always knew it was a self-indulgent, pointless thing to do, adding to their click rate just so I could feel righteously outraged over things that anyone with the slightest bit of imagination could feel outraged over quite independently. Nevertheless, I’d get annoyed when people told me not to keep going back to the site. Couldn’t they see I needed to know my enemy? Didn’t they realise that the puny ambition of feeling less of a tosser than Richard Littlejohn mattered? Thankfully, I don’t do this any more, but I worry I’ve just transferred the obsession over to twitter, where, if anything, it’s worse. (more…)
On Saturday evening I was on twitter, discussing the criminal conviction of those who threatened Caroline Criado-Perez with rape. There are many ways in which people excuse the abuse of women – she asked for it, she wanted it, she’s lying – but here’s one I hadn’t heard before: Criado-Perez was just a privileged white feminist victimising working class people for whom rape threats are a normal part of everyday discourse.
This struck me as one of those bigotry double whammies, reminiscent of a Ceefax letter I once read, claiming that if the UK hadn’t legalised abortion we wouldn’t need all those bloody immigrants. Just as someone there used racism to justify their anti-choice position, here someone was using classism to justify rape threats. Marvellous! There’s an infinite number of ways you can play one prejudice off against another, or even double them up, and in this case you can even pretend you’re on the side of the underclass (poor working class people, they do not know what they do etc.). And so I tweeted this:
So that was that, at least until mid-morning on a Sunday when my tweet was discovered by the twitter feminism police and deemed to be racist, transphobic, privileged, offensive etc. Hence a whole heap of shit came my way.
Obviously I’m really sorry I sent that tweet. Only kidding. I’m not, not in the slightest. I’ll use sarcasm and hyperbole if I want to. I’ll use whatever means I choose to call out the self-aggrandising bullshit of those who excuse rape threats, patronise and slander those whom they’ve characterised as “the marginalised” and dare to think of themselves as feminist to boot. If other people decide to read that tweet out of context, twist it and use it as an excuse to intimidate me then frankly they should be ashamed of themselves. And I would just leave it at that but this isn’t an isolated event. This kind of bullying, misrepresentation and lying happens to feminists all the time and I, for one, am furious.
I know what you’re thinking. But it’s structural. You have to put the language you used within a broader context of oppression. Damn right I will, and here’s that context: I was not misrepresented and name-called because of anything I wrote. I was misrepresented and name-called for two reasons: 1. I’m a woman, and 2. I have a New Statesman blog and am therefore considered excessively “privileged”. If that doesn’t sound sufficiently humble I don’t care. Lately, in ways I don’t tend to blog about, I’ve been through enough. Right now I’m done with the female social code that commands me to express shame at myself, assume good faith in cruel people and deny my own qualities just so that my presence isn’t too disruptive.
This abuse is because I am a woman, not because I am a white woman. I do not believe reverse racism exists, whereas misogyny clearly does. However, this abuse does need to be placed in the context of “white feminism” – after all, it’s a phrase I used in my tweet – because it’s related to the shorthand people use for a particular type of perceived female privilege (as though privilege is not a shifting, intersecting thing that everyone with access to twitter enjoys in different ways, but a line you cross which makes you less credible, less capable of experiencing pain and less capable of acting in good faith). I know that I am seen as a white feminist in terms of political positioning, in ways that others who are just as white-skinned as me are not. I think, again, this is related to misogyny and visibility and to the idea of women such as me, who don’t succumb to the pressure to create a tragic narrative out of their own twitter bio, as shameless interlopers who deserve a kicking.
Analysis of what it means to be a white woman, or a white feminist, hasn’t moved on much from Catherine MacKinnon’s 1996 piece What is a white woman anyway? There, she gives a strong summary of the misogynist mischaracterisation of white female experience (again I’d stress this is misogyny, not racism):
This creature is not poor, not battered, not raped (not really), not molested as a child, not pregnant as a teenager, not prostituted, not coerced into pornography, not a welfare mother, and not economically exploited. She doesn’t work. […] She is Miss Anne of the kitchen, she puts Frederick Douglass to the lash, she cries rape when Emmet Till looks at her sideways, she manipulates white men’s very real power with the lifting of her very well-manicured little finger. […] On top of all this, out of impudence, imitativeness, pique, and a simple lack of anything meaningful to do, she thinks she needs to be liberated. Her feminist incarnation is all of the above, and guilty about every single bit of it, having by dint of repetition refined saying “I’m sorry” to a high form of art. […] Beneath the trivialization of the white woman’s subordination implicit in the dismissive sneer “straight white economically privileged women” (a phrase which has become one word, the accuracy of some of its terms being rarely documented even in law journals) lies the notion that there is no such thing as the oppression of women as such.
Today we call women such as this Helen Lewis, or Caitlin Moran, or maybe Laurie Penny (how dare you write about your own hair!). We dehumanise them, calling their pain “cis white tears”. We don’t allow them mistakes. We are grossly, rampantly misogynist about them but this form of misogyny is supposed to be corrective, humiliating the privilege out of them. We say “we must all check our privilege” and “we must all learn” but what we really mean is “you’re privileged” and “you’re damned, you bigot”.
This doesn’t happen to men who are trying to disrupt the system but twitter and other online forums have become, for these women, the equivalent of the scold’s bridle or brank:
First recorded in Scotland in 1567, the branks were also used in England, where it may not have been formally legalized as a punishment. The kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted the contraption mostly on female transgressors and women considered to be “rude” or “nags” or “common scolds“. Branking (in Scotland and the North of England) was designed as a mirror punishment for “shrews'”or “scolds”; women of the lower classes whose speech was deemed “riotous” or “troublesome”; — often women suspected of witchcraft — by preventing such “gossips or scolds” from speaking. This also gives it it’s other name ‘The Gossip’s Bridle’
What could be more “riotous” or “troublesome” than a feminist who has strength and visibility? I know what you’re thinking: a feminist who swears a lot, calls out other women, tweets pictures of her pubes and babbles on about smashing the patriarchy. But we know this isn’t true. The latter kind of feminist is ten a penny, and conservative as they come. It’s feminists who have the nerve to put honesty before radical posturing who are unsettling. Those who genuinely claim space, which is then written off as “privilege” (because what is a woman doing there?). Such women might actually make a difference. So into the bridle they go.
Of course, if you think about it for half a second, there is no point in even attempting to analyse intersections of gender, race and class if you’re not prepared to include an examination of your own misogyny, or even to admit that it exists. The woman-hatred of those who smack down “media feminists” is difficult to challenge precisely because it plays into all the sexist stereotypes outlined by MacKinnon. In addition, any challenge is portrayed as a denial of white supremacy. As a white feminist, I would say it is easier – much, much easier – to play along with this. You get to enjoy the privilege of being white and appear superior to the “mere” white feminists who just don’t “get it”. There’s an absurdly careerist edge to this. If you view feminism not as a movement for social change, but as the route to a media career you’ve got to admit it’s a competitive arena. Using other people to play at being the best white intersectional feminist has been seen by some as a gap in the market. Donning the metaphorical tin hat to shout down “bad” peers is a USP. When you boil it down, such “feminists” are arch capitalists, seeking to commodify not just feminism but the exclusion and lived experience of others. It is emotionally manipulative and disgracefully self-serving, but it doesn’t involve laying yourself on the line. You get to be a privileged white woman without looking like one.
I’ve done this myself (what you do is take the example of a media feminist being vilified, explain to everyone what intersectionality is and why you get it, thereby implying she doesn’t without actually referring to context, then sadly suggest you hope she’ll listen and learn, making it clear that you don’t hold out any such hope). It is easy but morally untenable, insofar as it uses ideas of intersecting oppressions not to offer context and understanding, but to reinforce privilege by the back door and to silence dissent. I think of it as a form of privilege laundering. I think it is an example of white people exploiting the narratives of women of colour and it sucks.
But now I am on the other side of that imaginary, exploitative privilege line, I see other benefits to approaching feminism not as liberation, but as a self-interested cookie hunt. I didn’t appreciate at the time how much I shielded myself from misogyny by putting the “bad” white feminists out in front. Now I have undermined my own voice by saying the things I know to be true. Now, not only is my right to speak being questioned, not only am I being told that the more effectively I use rhetoric, the less credibility I have, not only am I being told my anger and sense of justice doesn’t matter –– all of which are everyday experiences for anyone faced with discrimination – but it is being done in the name of inclusion. None of you have the right to manage how I talk back to authority, to discredit my thought, to reposition the discrimination and oppression I seek to articulate. None of you have the right to tell me what my own words mean, to tell me what my thoughts are, to reconstruct my words and reality without my consent. None of you have the right to damage my mental health, make me doubt my capacity to think, to make me feel unable to trust anyone because of the whispering and distortion that follows. None of you have the right to do this just because I’m a feminist and, if flawed, nonetheless a bloody good one too. None of you has the right to expect perfection from me. None of you have the right to place the scold’s bridle on me, to shame and silence me because I don’t fit in with your hackneyed, conservative misreading of revolution.
Nothing I articulate will be unfamiliar to others who experience oppression in other ways. But what I experience remains unacceptable. There is no “good,” corrective sexism. To think that is simply to think that sexism is not really oppression. Interestingly, MacKinnon argues that there is a fear of not aligning yourself with another form of oppression, even at another person’s expense, “because that means being in the category with “her,” the useless white woman whose first reaction when the going gets rough is to cry”:
I sense here that people feel more dignity in being part of a group that includes men than in being part of a group that includes that ultimate reduction of the notion of oppression, that instigator of lynch mobs, that ludicrous whiner, that equality coat-tails rider, the white woman. It seems that if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior. Once a group is seen as putatively human, a process helped by including men in it, an oppressed man falls from a human standard. A woman is just a woman–the ontological victim–so not victimized at all.
I think a skim through the twitter bios of a number of white feminists who consider themselves “more aware” than so-called media feminists makes the continuation of this misogynist impulse glaringly obvious. I don’t list all the lived experiences I have which, while I should be able to share them, I know I could misuse as “currency”. But I could. I know the lingo I’d use. It would make me more than “just” a woman, but that’s why I don’t do it. Being a woman who defines herself by her actions and words should be enough.
Obviously clicking publish on this post is not going to make me friends. I am tempted to write the responses to it in advance, to save you time, so you can copy and paste into the comments box or onto twitter. About how I don’t get it. About how I’m saying feminism should focus only on gender and not the interaction with other oppressions. About how I’m defending my white supremacy. About how I’m seeking to discredit intersectional feminism on the sly. About how I think people being mean to me is more important than those less privileged getting a voice. About how I think misogyny is structurally embedded in a way racism isn’t. Go on, take your pick and knock yourself out. After all, you’ll never know the darkness of my soul, so why not make any possible prejudice more real than word and deed?
But know that you are not doing this for inclusion, equality, or to give the marginalised a voice. You’re doing it to silence some women because you don’t like any women. The damage you do to us is real but that’s just misogyny and the conservative impulses of the superficially radical, isn’t it? That’s not going to go away any time soon. Nevertheless, the women who answer you back sure as hell aren’t going anywhere either.
My kids are hilarious. If you followed me on twitter, you’d already know this. Rarely a day goes by without some comedy disaster involving underpants, missing homework or a mix-up between Star Wars and real life. It might not sound funny now but if you heard about their antics in real time (which twitter permits), you’d be rolling in the aisles. Or at least mildly amused. Or maybe you’d just unfollow. Anyhow, to me they will always be unwitting comedy giants.
I tweet about the funny things they say because they have no idea why I’m laughing, and I feel a bit pathetic laughing on my own (or worse, at them). The way in which a child’s intelligence develops ahead of knowledge or experience can often be tedious, but just occasionally it leads to wonderful linguistic errors, bizarrely out-of-place quotations and passionate defences of things which simply cannot be true (although mistrustful observers rarely bear in mind how much random nonsense you’ve had to get through before mining these gems). Obviously when it’s your own child you believe these flashes of hilarity may also be a sign that your offspring is a total genius (that one time my six-year-old said the Tudors were followed by the Steves, I was dining out on it for months).
I might share daft things my children say, and you may or may not find them amusing, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t make me less politically engaged. It doesn’t mean I think this is the only thing the internet is for. It doesn’t mean I am naturally conservative, unthinking, classist, fantastical, desperate for retweets from “some fifth-rate blazer ‘n’ T-shirt wearing comedian who guest-starred in one episode of Rev and has gained 2,500 followers as a result”. Except apparently it does. Some blokes – one of whom, Clive Martin, wrote a piece for Vice, the other of whom set up a “hilarious, but not in an uncool mumsy way” twitter account – have decreed that it is so. Humour is for the child-free hipsters. Iconoclasm doesn’t allow for maintaining a sense of humour while also keeping a critical focus on material reality; it’s taking the piss out of parents for not keeping out of the way while you treat the internet as one endless, pretentious undergraduate party.
Obviously I like chuckling at the edgy witticisms of youngish men as much as the next person. Like women and older people, parents can’t really do humour. They lack the intellect, moral rigour and involvement with the stuff of real life. They’re not even any good at curating the accidental bon mots of their little ones, but then that’s hardly surprising. As Clive Martin sympathetically notes in his analysis of The Sad World of Adults Pretending to Be Kids for Retweets:
Looking after a young kid must be pretty arduous and alienating at times, so you can understand why things like Mumsnet and gin exist.
I know! Such empathy from one who still has his finger on the pulse of human endeavour and suffering! The sad thing is, give us parents an inch and we’ll take a mile. We’re not just keeping to the Mumsnet talkboards, we’re now tweeting things about our kids which may not even be funny! Think of all the important twitterspace that’s taking up! Space that could be devoted to important things, such as mocking people because reasons.
While many of the current targets of mockery are male, I can’t help thinking there is a thinly veiled misogyny behind this latest round of parent-bashing (with the implication being that men who tweet about their children are in some way less intellectually engaged and honest, and therefore less “male”). Feminists have long pointed out that experiences of childcare and domestic life are edged out of public discourse, and this applies whether we’re talking about comedy or art. Such experiences are not considered “authentic” enough. When Marilyn French wrote The Women’s Room, the life of someone who cares for children was not considered novel-worthy. There’s nothing grand, nothing big or meaningful, even if it represents a person’s whole horizon. Why should the real people – those out there in proper, public life – have to come anywhere close to it? Why should anyone want to read your pathetic little domestic tweets, even in a light-hearted context? That’s not proper activism, at least not when activism is reduced to gaining retweets. But shouldn’t it be more than that?
Does it matter whether the tweets are true? Well, jokes frequently aren’t true, or are based on exaggeration (mine aren’t. My kids really are that funny. Honest). The problem, I feel, is the subject matter and the fact that individuals should gain approval for something considered so lowly. Only a tiny sector of society – youngish, child-free, male, snarky, educated yet cagey about it – are allowed that special pat on the back.
Parenting is not, in and of itself, anti-establishment. It enforces a degree of enclosure. Nevertheless, the minutiae of childrearing, the shared truths, even the shared lies, are part of how a community is formed. Mocking inoffensive jokes isn’t just hurtful; it betrays a misanthropy which shouldn’t form part of drive for social change. My children might not make you laugh but that’s not your problem.
Feminists! When setting your campaigning priorities, haven’t you ever thought it might be best to consult with a man first? After all, you might be too close to the issues, what with them affecting your life. It’s best to get an outside view, ideally from a nice white middle-class man who writes for one of the broadsheets.
Take Michael White, for instance. Amidst all the fuss over sexual harassment and what Lord Rennard may or may not have done, finally here’s a voice of reason to counter the “hysterical language and media furore”:
Homophobia remains a lethal fact of life in many parts of the world […] and – as MPs reminded David Cameron only last week – slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors are still widely inflicted on women, even in Britain. A clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same.
Yeah, ladies. Get a sense of proportion! Sexual harassment just isn’t that big a deal! Next time you feel a hand where it shouldn’t be, just think of things that are far, far worse than that. That way you’ll know just how self-indulgent and silly it is to expect your own physical boundaries to be respected. After all, according to White that’s what just some female MPs who aren’t alive any more would have done (by contrast female MPs who are still alive have expressed views to the contrary but they just don’t know what they’re talking about, what with them having been born later than Michael White was). (more…)
This year my New Year’s resolution is the same as it has been for every other year: become perfect. Be true to yourself while ensuring that everyone likes you, lose weight while simultaneously developing a healthy attitude to body shape and food, develop comfort in your own skin while also stopping ageing in its tracks, always be right while maintaining the humility to know you could be wrong, be Yoda-like in your wisdom, bend time and space, become immortal, that sort of thing. The usual.
When it comes to resolutions, I am extreme. What is the point if you’re not going to be? Make your resolution too much of a SMART objective and you might even stick to it, and where would be the fun in that? The whole point of resolutions — and of womanhood, I’m increasingly inclined to believe — is to be a self-flagellating work in progress. You’re rubbish now but tomorrow you might not be (that said, you’re also obliged to live in the moment, so don’t get too carried away).
It often feels to me that New Year’s Resolutions are merely an extension of women’s glossy culture. Or maybe it’s the other way round? Either way, there’s a great deal of similarity to the way in which the likes of Glamour, Marie Claire and Elle tell you that “your best body ever” is just around the corner and the way in which the new year is meant to make self-control and perfection suddenly attainable. You’re meant to spend each month, each year, convinced that this is the very last one in which you’ll be such a total failure. You’re getting better, you are! Nearly there, just one more push … And then it gets too late and you die and the only consolation is that at this point, you genuinely will lose weight.
I know people who don’t read rubbish magazines make resolutions too. I know it’s human nature to always be dissatisfied in oneself and want to change, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The alternative — wandering through life thinking that you are flawless — would be insufferable (that said there will always be an article ordering you to “love yourself” in between all those shiny pages telling you how useless you are). But our expectations of ourselves are beyond ridiculous and the irony is, the more we hate ourselves, the more we end up behaving as though we’re the only people who matter. There’s no time to be kind when you’re busy being cruel to yourself, no space for perspective on world poverty when you’re battling with a self-imposed hunger strike. This is the case even if your resolutions are broken by January 2nd. You now have a huge expanse of time in which you could be looking outwards but instead you turn inwards, asking yourself why you aren’t a better person (the answer is that better people don’t dwell on why they’re not better people but just get on with it. Now there’s another meta-worry for us all).
I did have one year when I stuck to my resolutions. Never again. I was fifteen and filled a whole exercise book with statements of what I would and wouldn’t do for the new year, divided into subsections such as Food, Exercise, Social Life, Charity Work, Cultural Awareness and GCSEs (yes, I know. Even I worried about it at the time). I did not spend the year being a paragon of virtue. I spent it being a miserable sod who did the bare minimum of everything I’d set myself, with no time for anything else (and actually, I broke one of the resolutions anyhow, which was “be much more relaxed about everything”). Perhaps if I’d stopped to think that for once I was actually doing all the things I’d set myself, I’d have been filled with a profound Weltschmerz. Thankfully at least that didn’t happen because I had always had next year’s resolutions to plan.
Obviously I’m never going to resolve not to make resolutions, because that is terminally naff, not to mention difficult, because how can you be sure something isn’t a resolution and just a plan? There’s always going to be something worth doing to make yourself less of a loser. But I do wonder about this endless wallowing in the impossibility of being you and the need to change. Surely there’s a better way? Once I’m perfect I will tell you what it is.