Feminism


Most women hate their bodies. This is one of those boring facts that everyone knows and no one bothers to change. We half-heartedly order women to “love themselves” and “embrace their curves.” We encourage them to watch Dove adverts so that they may campaign for Real Beauty (while also worrying about ugly underarms). We eventually tell them fuck it, beauty is empowerment, why not embrace your self-hatred? Whatever we do, it’s not all that important since at the end of the day it’s all vanity. Hate away.

I can’t remember a time when I haven’t hated my body. Really, truly hated it, albeit in a way that I don’t tend to think of as hate (I think of it as “having a shit body” or “being a fat, ugly bitch” or in countless other ways which problematize not my hatred, but my body itself as an offensive object). At times my hatred of my flesh has almost killed me, leading to hospitalisations and force-feedings. I still wish there was less of me. Whatever my size I will always wish to be less. (more…)

I’ll always remember the first time my youngest son decided to shake social convention to the very core. We were at the dinner table, trying to persuade him to stay on his seat, when he suddenly stood up and announced the following:

I’m going to do a POO on the TOILET from my BOTTOM!

I do apologise for the crudeness, but those were his very words.

Obviously this bombshell woke us from our bourgeois complacency. Not just one, but three rude words in one sentence – how could we maintain the façade of civility now? Indeed, how could one ever conceive of such pointless traditions as “mealtimes” and “rules” ever again? My son was grinning, satisfied with his work, while the rest of us sought to reconstruct some kind of “meaning” from the remnants of family life as we knew it.

Or rather, that’s what my son wanted to happen. The trouble is my son is four. Statements about poo and bottoms are not taboo-breaking when they are made by four-year-olds at the dinner table. If, on the other hand, I’d stood up in a company meeting and made the same announcement, things would have been different. I am an adult. I am expected to behave professionally in an office setting. It’s not the words themselves that matter; context is everything. (more…)

This post is brought to you by sex. Lots and lots of sex, which I may or may not have had in the past and/or be having right now. The precise nature of said sex shall remain undefined. Suffice it to say that it’s as rude – or not rude – as you want it to be. The point is, I’ve fucked my way to credibility – or have I?

It has come to my attention that in most discussions of porn, sex work and objectification, there’s immense pressure placed on feminists to demonstrate they have the lived experience required to take part. It’s not enough that to have grown up in a patriarchal culture, nor to have felt the daily impact of being reduced to passive flesh. You’re obliged to show your bits. After all, if you don’t do that, how can anyone tell whether you’re not just some sex-fearing neurotic? Disliking sex is not the same as, say, not liking sugar in your tea; it’s become a form of bigotry and thus, as a bigot, you’re not allowed an abstract opinion on how objectification affects womankind. Indeed, even if you’re fond of most things sex-wise, it’s probably best to express unbridled enthusiasm for anything at all that you find problematic, otherwise you may not be permitted to find it problematic in the first place. Does that make sense? (more…)

How would women talk if they knew men weren’t listening? This is something I’ve been considering a lot of late. How much is what we say to each other a performance on behalf of men? And if a woman speaks out of earshot of any man, does she really make a sound?

It isn’t true that men never listen to women. They do, all the time. When we say to men “you don’t listen” perhaps what we really mean is “you might use my words to judge me but they will never change your view of yourself”. It is not that our words are not heard, but that they don’t function in the way they are supposed to. All too often, there is no real dialogue. The listener takes our words and uses them to reform his perception of us. In doing so, he subtly changes our status; we are redefined from without. What we really wanted to achieve — an interchange of ideas, with all the shared vulnerabilities this entails — remains out of reach. “I am listening,” he says, “and later I will judge.”

So we get used to it. No point endlessly trying to achieve the impossible. If I put forward an argument, especially on twitter, I expect a large proportion of the men who hear it to understand it not as a challenge to their worldview, but as a means of positioning me in relation to them. “Where do I place this woman in relation to my rightness?” I lack the status to be an adversary or a mind-changer. Women generally do. Our words don’t penetrate. Penetrating others isn’t for the likes of us. (more…)

It is, I suppose, a love story.

It began as a fairytale, cross-culture love affair that played out against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal itself. It ended in darkness and tragedy.

Or rather, it ended in a man stabbing a woman to death before killing himself.

Not to worry, though. She was his wife. These things happen, men killing wives, both in fiction and in real life.

The Independent report on the deaths of Erin Willinger and Bunty Sharma makes for what I’d call easy reading. A murder-suicide, yes, but not the kind that would put you off your breakfast. You have read this story before and know it by heart. A couple falls in love too quickly, then that they find they can’t get along – they “have differences,” we will say – and so one of them has to kill the other (in heterosexual relationships it tends to be the man who kills the woman. This is, we believe, pure coincidence. Or just part of the genre, I can’t remember which). (more…)

My four-year-old son likes the colour pink. He likes it on everything: pink socks, pink toys, pink paint, pink glitter. Sometimes he even wears a pink plastic ring to school.

My son also knows that he is a boy, and that boys are not allowed to like pink. Not one to be deterred, he’s come up with his own solution. From now on, pink will be called orange and orange, pink.

“Are you wearing your pink ring today?”

“Don’t be silly! It’s orange! It has to be orange because orange is for boys!”

Let’s be clear: there’s no real reason why pink should be pink and orange should be orange. They’re just identifying words. Sometimes it won’t even be clear which one you should use, or if either is appropriate. Is salmon pink really orange? And coral? And what if your paint was pink but then you added more and more yellow? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter. There is pink and there is orange but not everything needs to be judged on how pink or how orange it is. They’re just the outer shades, not the things in themselves. Even so, I wish my son didn’t feel the need to switch words around solely on the basis that pink is not allowed. (more…)

Female biology is neither magic nor mysterious. It doesn’t make those in possession of it nurturing, or caring, or motherly. It doesn’t mean we ought to bear children, nor does it mean we can always bear children if we’d like to. Female biology is flawed, inconsistent and, most of all, it is not the sum of us.

It is, however, real. My female reproductive system is as real as my heart or my brain or my lungs. It will exist whether you allow me to name it or not. I am not simply “a female”. I am a person. I am, nevertheless, female. I am neither ashamed nor frightened of this.

Identifying bodies as female is not an oppressive or exclusive act. It is simply a statement of fact, but also one that has political import. If we stop naming female bodies, female bodies will still exist. We will still interpret them and respond to them. We will, without radical changes to our thinking, continue to reject, abuse and punish these bodies just for being what they are. We will not call them female, but we will still call them something: the bodies of breeders, bleeders, post-menopausal non-entities. We will demean their owners by taking away a biological definition and replacing it with a function. We will have decreed “female” far too good a word for that lower class of humans, the fleshy, sinful ones with their blood, discharges and holes. We will have taken a word that articulates the source of their oppression and offered nothing in return.

(more…)

Women online — they’re always whinging about abuse, aren’t they? And yet it’s so hard to stop abusing them! You might even think they deserve it. After all, a thousand twitter mobs can’t be wrong, can they?

Well, here’s problem. People who abuse women always think they have a good reason for doing it. That’s how abuse works. It’s a function of widespread ignorance and fear. And since when did an abuser really see themselves as such? They always think they are doing it for the victim’s own good, so that she will learn to be better and not make the same “mistakes” again. Corrective abuse, one might call it. Find a space with women in it and trust me, thinks the abuser, some of them will need to be tamed.

You might be a woman yourself, a feminist even, but still find it hard to approach other women as though they are human beings. Perhaps you’ve found some distancing strategy that makes you feel less of a “basic” female. That’s okay. After all, it’s hard to remain a decent person in a highly abusive environment. Tapping into a special vein of misogyny that you’ve decided doesn’t apply to you is a natural reaction. It’s not right but there’s still time to change.

To help you get back on track, I’ve written this handy, deeply patronising checklist for abusive feminists everywhere. Please make the time to read it. After all, what harm can one more passive-aggressive, “stop being such a shit feminist” list do when there are so many out there already?

So, let’s begin:

1. According to the most up-to-date scientific research, women are human beings. And yes, that includes all women, even the ones you don’t like. I know this will make some of you feel a bit icky. That’s fine. It often takes people time to get used to this idea. Give yourself the space to work on your internalised prejudice (it’s hard, I know *sends solidarihugs*).

2. All women have things called “ideas” and “opinions”. It can be difficult when you first encounter this online, at least if a woman’s ideas and opinions differ to yours. A common impulse is to call her a bigot, accuse her of various phobias and invite the rest of the internet to shame her into submission. Don’t panic if that’s what you’ve been doing. You simply need to get to grips with the idea that a person not agreeing with you is okay, even if that person is a woman (I know, a woman! Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But trust me, letting women have opinions won’t be any worse than letting men have them. You just need to overcome your fear of this).

3. For a long time it was believed that only men could have what we call “real emotions”. Nowadays it’s recognised that women have them, too, but it’s still felt that a woman can forfeit them if she steps out of line. For instance, while we know that “die in a fire” or “STFU you shit-for-brains cunt” would upset the average man, a recalcitrant woman is widely held to respond only with “sadfeelz”. This is, alas, bad science. All current indications suggest that even women who lack the #twitterfeminism seal of approval have actual emotional responses to threats and abuse. That’s something to bear in mind next time you start putting a dot before the @ in your tweet.

4. Lots of us believe that older women exist only to make us feel important, stroke our bruised egos and occasionally do the housework. Hence if you encounter an older woman online, it can be terribly disappointing if she doesn’t seem utterly bowled over by your edgy sexual exploits, or has the temerity not to think your self-centred view of gender overwrites her more critical one. The thing to remember is: older women are not your mum. They’re not going to cut you some slack just because they love you. They have their own shit to deal with and don’t owe you approval. It comes back to the “women being people” thing. Keep repeating that to yourself until one day you believe it.

5. One of the oldest forms of misogyny comes in the belief that the female body is corruptive, sinful and repulsive. You might think you have ideas about sex and gender which make you immune to this reaction and if so, that’s cool. However, if your immediate response to someone mentioning words such as period and vagina (but not penis or testes) is to tweet “fuck off, cissexist scum!” it may be that you still have issues.

6. These days most cultures allow women to manage their own relationships and interact socially without the presence of a chaperone, partner or male relative. That’s something to bear in mind if you find yourself regularly checking up on whom a woman is following on twitter, quizzing her over her online “associations,” warning people not to talk to X because she’s been seen talking to Y etc..

7. Making women feel uncertain about themselves — that their views are not authoritative, their thought processes tainted by bigotry, their suffering unverified, their “lived experiences” neither real nor raw enough to count — is a common abuser’s tactic. This may be something you do without even meaning to. You might think you have the lived experiences against which all other women must measure theirs (and that theirs will invariably be found wanting). You might secretly enjoy spreading uncertainty and acquiring obedient followers, desperate not to offend you with their silly woman ideas. All this means is that you are acting like an entitled prick. But don’t worry! There’s always time to change. Read and re-read this list, then resolve to do better.

8. Being a woman isn’t meant to feel modern or cutting edge. Womanhood doesn’t need repackaging or pruning, leaving the embarrassing “waste” behind. All women who speak are women whom, as a feminist, you should feel some responsibility towards. That’s really annoying, isn’t it? But that’s people for you.

It’s okay if all this is new to you. Take your time. In the meantime, here’s a shit, babyish cartoon to help you on your journey:

Am I abusive

Still feeling uncomfortable? Patronised? Offended? Don’t worry. This is how most women feel online all the time. Terrified of saying the wrong thing. Judged simply for existing. Frightened that if they call out abuse, they’ll just be accused of bigotry. Patronised by passive-aggressive lists which outline all of the ways in which they are to blame for all social ills. Blamed for all the bad things that happen to them, tortured by the thought that those accusing them could be right.

If you feel even a tiny bit of that right now, think carefully before you launch in to your next attack. If, on the other hand, you’ve already composed a tweet in which you describe how I’ve written a post all about defending privilege, you’re nothing if not predictable and hopelessly, determinedly wrong.

Yesterday Paris Lees wrote a blog post on Avery Edison, a trans woman who was being held in a man’s prison in Canada. In it, she described “a culture that punishes difference, blames victims and lacks empathy”:

It’s a disbelief characterised by privilege: the cushy, unquestioned joy of not knowing what it feels like for the other person. To stand there, humiliated, while people you don’t know tell you what they think your gender should be. That you are fake. Inauthentic. Not what you say you are.

Powerful and beautifully expressed, this touches on something that lies at the heart of all movements for social change – this sense that you are not what others define you to be, that you are more human, more real, and as such you deserve more. That your life has a pattern and meaning other than those being imposed on it from above. We all know our realities better than anyone else. We know what forms us and we know what hurts us. We own the context of our own experiences.

I was thinking of this when reading Roz Kaveney’s response to my New Statesman piece on cis identities, gender and womanhood. It’s not a response as such, more a remarkably unfeeling lecture on how to be empathetic. It’s a curious thing, reading that what you believe and feel about yourself isn’t right, and that someone else knows better. It’s not an unfamiliar sensation of course; as a fellow woman, Roz, I’ve had people do this to me all my life. And here’s a gentle reminder, if you’re going to write about empathy again any time soon: the respect I show for your reality doesn’t render mine a poor, second-class version.

Your experiences don’t override mine, filling in the gaps, blotting out the parts no one wants to see. Your understanding of gender is different, but not heightened, not deeper, not more “real”. I am interested in the context it gives to mine, and the extent to which I may need to recalibrate in response; nevertheless, my flexibility doesn’t extend to offering up my own version of womanhood at the altar of your ego.

In a piece filled with kindly, long-suffering explanations of what I “really” think, Kaveney describes how “when someone like Glosswitch, not ill-intentioned and probably not meaningfully describable as transphobic, announces that they are going to talk about gender, alarm bells ring all over the trans* part of the internet”. I know! Just imagine, me, a feminist, having opinions and thoughts about gender! It’s bound to be total crap, right? The whole tone of this sounds disturbingly patriarchal. I picture myself in a Mike Leigh film, a seventies housewife who’s got drunk at a dinner party, my embarrassed husband making excuses for us both: “Don’t mind Glosswitch, she means well but she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about!” Poor Glosswitch. She does get these “ideas” about womanhood. Don’t hold it against her, eh? She’s not transphobic, after all; well, not “meaningfully describable” as such (wink, wink).

Like all people who mistake projection for empathy, Kaveney seems to suggest she is being kind:

I get that, as a young cis woman, Glosswitch experienced major areas of dysphoria about body and social role; I understand that she thinks, not entirely without justice, that these give her some share of what trans people go through.

Well, actually: no. That’s not what I think. I don’t define my experience of gender solely in relation to people who experience it differently. I don’t see it as a partial, broken-off narrative, useful only if it will earn me the right to take part in a conversation that belongs to someone else. This is my story. Mine. I own it. It is every bit as complete and real as yours, and this is true of every single woman on Earth, cis or trans. This will make you uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, but there we are. That’s empathy for you.

This doesn’t mean gender is arbitrary and meaningless, floating in the ether. It is embedded in all of our lives. We each make our own definitions, form our own versions. That doesn’t mean the totality of these versions is harmless. We can still read its impact. It’s not the case that when beliefs about gender kill women – or cause them not to be born at all – these women don’t really die because hey, that’s not how you see gender operating. This is no more valid than suggesting that racism isn’t that bad, really, because you recognise people of colour are equal to white people. You don’t get to deny the reality of structural inequality just because you simply don’t feel it deep within yourself.

Kaveney writes that “the range of meanings attached to the word gender are attached to a range of actual lived experiences – that is how a living language about sex and equality develops”. I am a linguist. I have PhD in languages. I might not be quoting Butler but I am not a child who needs words explaining to me. I also know that it is naïve in the extreme to pretend that language necessarily develops in a positive direction, becoming more progressive and inclusive. Any development which takes from females the means to articulate the relationship between gender, biology and oppression – and does so at a time of massive structural inequality – is not a positive one. It is, on the contrary, erasing and dangerous. Kaveney would like to suggest that any articulation of the misogyny inherent in reproductive oppression means giving in to “the people who want to abolish women’s reproductive freedom” since they are also erasing trans men. This is disingenuous beyond belief. A denial of the structural roots of oppression is not a move for inclusivity. Misogyny is real. It is no less real when it has an impact on those who do not identify as women.

Of course, like all women, I am used to people talking down to me and feeling, not angry, but disappointed. Often they sound like this:

Some of the time Glosswitch really doesn’t get it – empathy fails all together.

Oh dear :(. The trouble is, empathy isn’t saying what people would like you to say. It is about trying to understand. Kaveney doesn’t like this. You are, it appears, either right or wrong:

What’s also politically dangerous is [Glosswitch’s] assumption that there’s a possible, desirable truce between trans people and those feminists who are trans-exclusionary, or more accurately trans-eliminationist.

God forbid that anyone should operate on the assumption that, in a world in which beliefs about sex and gender oppress us all, we’re most of us trying to do our best. God forbid anyone should try to act in a way that identifies humanity and good faith even in those we disagree with. God forbid that we should hesitate before daring to look at anyone – anyone at all—and say that they are, to quote Lees, “fake. Inauthentic. Not who you say you are.” God forbid that I should believe my reality can stand toe to toe with yours.

I haven’t written this for the benefit of Roz Kaveney, or indeed anyone else. I’ve written it for me, because it makes me feel better to restate that my reality is mine. It’s important to be able to reclaim these things. You can take something from deep within yourself and lay it out for public consumption and it will be there for others to take and put into whatever context they wish. Nonetheless, it’s still yours, whoever you are. It can’t be distorted and shoved back inside you as something else, something you neither knew nor felt.  Anyone at all should be able to empathise with that, at least if they were to try.

Is having Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated empowering or demeaning? That’s what the Guardian wants to know, so much so that they’ve set up an online poll. Personally, I find the whole thing baffling, but then again, I don’t know what Sports Illustrated is. Is it a wank mag that everyone pretends is a sports magazine? Or a sports magazine that everyone pretends is a wank mag? I have no idea and what’s more, I can’t be arsed to find out. Hence I shall remain neither empowered nor demeaned, languishing in some liminal state of non-womanhood.

The “empowered or demeaned?” game is of course a familiar one. It’s one of those media bastardisations of feminism that ends up reinforcing the dehumanising extremes it claims to avoid. Are you empowered – a tits out, up for it, ball-breaking capitalist – or demeaned – a prudish, frigid, man-hating victim? Are you taking ownership of your life, busting out of the strictures that confine you, or are you standing back, watching while sexism is done to you? There’s no question, really, as to whether or not Barbie, or Page Three, or rape porn, or unpaid labour count as “objectively” empowering or demeaning. It’s all a state of mind. The impression is that you get to choose. There is no such thing as structural oppression. Feminist critique is no longer a challenge to patriarchy; it’s a personal statement. I am empowered, or, I am demeaned. (more…)

My feminism is not about being afraid.

Of course, I am afraid of lots of things. I am afraid of not being considered attractive. I am afraid of not being liked. I am afraid of being considered sluttish, or stupid, or frigid. I am afraid of being excluded, and I’m afraid of excluding, too.

I am afraid of being considered “just” a woman. I’m afraid of not knowing what being a woman means. I’m afraid of being a bad mother, a poor worker, a useless partner, a selfish friend. I am afraid of being poor. I am afraid of being physically or psychologically abused. I am afraid of rape and murder.

I am afraid of the structures that maintain oppression. I am afraid of describing them. I am afraid of not saying the right thing. I am afraid of saying anything at all.

A feminism whose primary aim is validating these fears – one that supports and thrives on them – is no feminism at all. It is, at best, a diversion, a support group. At worst it reinforces the oppressions it claims to challenge. It denies any possibility of change, presenting self-definition as a substitute to challenging oppression at all.

Last night a friend and I were discussing the rise of SWERF and TERF, insults that are increasingly used against feminists who attack, not sex workers nor trans people, but gendered structures of oppression. Fear-based feminism would deny that these are insults at all. It would argue that the word “exclusion” is never used in vain. It would send tweets to itself and the world at large, using capital letters: TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR TERF IS NOT A SLUR. It would say “it’s descriptive,” all the while making note of the latest unsayables (gender is a construct, reproduction is a feminist issue, misogyny is associated with hatred of the female body). It would watch as all space for discussion and compassion collapsed in on itself. It would think “as long as I am safe. As long as I am neither SWERF nor TERF.”

Fear-based feminism is all about attacking individuals, not intersecting structures of oppression. “Kick up, not down.” Just as long as you’re kicking someone, and as long as the person being kicked isn’t you. As long as you are the one saying “STFU” and “sit down” and “cis white feminist tears” and shaking your damn head at someone else’s supreme ignorance. As long as you are not creating (because you might create the wrong thing!). As long as you are knocking down.

A critique of gender, objectification, sex work and reproductive oppression within the context of “being a woman” should be within the scope of anyone’s feminism. And yet, if I were a younger feminist – if I didn’t already have the support of other feminists — I would be too frightened to have written that sentence. I would think it was easier left unsaid. Best focus on the surface and the individual. I would not trust myself with more, and I’d be scared of ever wavering from this. I would want to be a good girl, one who swears and fucks in all the right places, wishes suffering on the right people, says “sorry” to those she fears and “die, scum” to those whom she doesn’t want to be. I would tweet SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR SWERF IS NOT A SLUR. I would have no faith in my own ability to listen and make my own moral judgments. I’d be bloody terrified of ever getting this wrong, and I’d be right to be.

Internet feminism is fraught not because women cannot support one another. It is fraught because it is not a safe space. We still need the approval of heterosexual men. We don’t want to be “the wrong kind of feminist,” one who likes women too much and sucks dick too little (hence the rampant lesophobia of the most right-on masses). We want to be able to blame “the wrong kind of feminist” for everything, from slut-shaming to transphobia to the murder of sex workers. This has no bearing on reality but it makes feminism appear a far easier enterprise. Kick other women and nothing else needs to change.

The truth is that feminism is not about exclusion, or irrevocable judgment, or leaving others exposed to physical danger. Nevertheless, it challenges the structures in which we’re enmeshed and shifts the ground beneath our feet. It does not always feel protective – how could it? But it can be respectful, kind and humane, and it should also be brave.

I am a fearful person, but mine isn’t a feminism of fear. I am tortured by the fear of being a terrible person but not of being called one. There are worse things than name-calling. Most of us know what these things are. They’re what feminism should be there to challenge. And when I talk about “fear-based feminism” I do mean it as a criticism, but not as a damning description of another human being. To be a feminist and to be fearful is human. Fears can be recalibrated. This is not a slur.

I was 17 when the allegations that Woody Allen had abused his daughter Dylan Farrow first surfaced. I’d never seen one of his films – and haven’t enjoyed any of those I’ve subsequently watched – but I knew straight away whose side I was on: Team Woody all the way.

I just knew, as did everyone else, that mad, vengeful Mia Farrow had made up the whole thing to punish Allen for his relationship with Soon Yi Previn.  Like everyone else, I felt sorry for Dylan, not because I thought she’d been abused, but because she had Mia for a mother. No wonder Woody left her. No wonder Soon Yi betrayed her. What a horrible, twisted individual Mia must be. Back then, I already considered myself a feminist, but I resented Farrow for putting on such a stereotypical performance of woman scorned. She had, I felt, let us all down.

Twenty years later the same story’s still running. Some of us have learned, through hard experience, to question it, others have not. Some of us believe this is the only thing that can make sense. After all, there is logic, of sorts. We already have our villain – angry, unforgiving Mia – and as for the idea that Allen could be an abuser after all? Well, that’s just too weird.

(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“.[4][5] Branking (in Scotland and the North of England)[6][7] was designed as a mirror punishment for “shrews’”or “scolds”; women of the lower classes whose speech was deemed “riotous” or “troublesome”[8]; — 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.

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…)

Lynx. The perfect Secret Santa gift for the male colleague you don’t know and/or don’t particularly like. The heterosexual male equivalent of one of those Baylis & Harding “looks vaguely like Molton Brown but totally isn’t” bath sets. The year before last, I received the latter, my partner got the former. What this says about us as colleagues is something I’d rather not consider.  

Having had some Lynx in our household within the recent past, I can say at least this with certainty: the Lynx Effect doesn’t work. One whiff of Africa, Cool Metal, Excite or Fever does not provoke unstoppable horniness. It provokes, first, amusement because it smells so fucking awful, second, vague memories of some really creepy lads in Year 10, and, finally, a migraine. Only the first of these is even remotely fun.

Back in the 1980s there was, sort of, a female equivalent to the Lynx Effect, when Impulse used the “men just can’t help acting on it” tagline.

 

That’s right, ladies, when a man you’ve never met before gives you flowers, you’ll know he’s acting on Impulse (which obviously makes it totally reassuring and not at all stalkerish, or so my 11-year-old self used to think). As ever, the expectations placed on men in response to female body spray were considerably lower than those placed on women in response to Lynx. Women detect a little Lynx Apollo and they’re whipping their bras off to reveal ample, if somewhat artificial looking, tits. Men get a noseful of Impulse Chic and the most they’re expected to do is proffer some limp Gladioli (tip: most women would rather have booze. Or even a book token, to be honest). To make matters worse the ball is then back in the woman’s court (he’s bought you some flowers, you say? Time to whip your bra off to reveal ample …). It’s not great, is it? And all this is before we get into the deeply disturbing overtones of a tagline which suggests men can’t really control themselves anyhow.

It’s bad enough that the ads play on the idea of male pursuer, female pursued (always in a deeply heteronormative context). These days Lynx are taking it one step further. Consider this delightful ad:

Lynx

The Lynx Effect. Encouraging Involuntary Seduction, that is, making someone who doesn’t actively want to have sex with you become more “amenable”. A bit like too much alcohol, or Rohypnol, only cheaper. “Involuntary” because, let’s face it, choice always gets in the way. Clearly Lynx understands what a young man wants: not any form of sexual interaction, but someone, anyone, into whom to stick his cock. Sod giving them flowers (that’s so 1980s). Let’s drug them (or let’s at least kid ourselves that a lungful of Lynx Rise will do anything other than repulse).

Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain the concept of rape culture to the unconvinced. Some people still believe there is rape – which bad people commit – and a surrounding environment which does nothing to condone it. If they do nothing else, Lynx adverts, with their jaunty sexism and teenage bedroom fantasies, make it that little bit easier to show how distorted concepts of seduction feed into a belief that consent doesn’t really matter. The word “involuntary” should never be used in adverts aimed at young men at a stage when they need to learn what enthusiastic consent really means. If sex involves anything that is not voluntary, it needs to stop.

It’s not that Lynx actually works. Of course it doesn’t. Everyone, even those using it, knows it doesn’t. But spreading the notion that it is reasonable to get people to whom you’re attracted to do things they don’t really want to do – that can have an effect. This is not selling seduction; it’s legitimising fantasies of assault.

Yesterday the Spanish government backed a proposal to toughen the country’s abortion laws. The BBC website reports Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon stating that “we can’t allow the life of the unborn baby to depend exclusively on the decision of the mother”. I beg to differ. Since the life of the fetus depends exclusively on the body of the mother, at significant expense to her, I can’t see who else’s decision it should be. Mi bombo es mío, as the twitter hashtag of pro-choice fightback puts it. Wherever a woman lives, whatever the beliefs of those around her, she should retain sovereignty over her own body, and that includes the management of her own reproductive life.

That said, I’m neither Spanish nor Catholic. Perhaps I don’t really understand the issues? Perhaps, like BPAS when they took out an advert in the Irish press stating “we’ll care for your women until your government does,” I could be accused of a form of cultural imperialism? That is, after all, the kind of crap that over-sensitive, cowardly feminists like me are meant to worry about. Sod the women of Ireland and Spain; what if I look like I’m judging their betters? Surely the liberation of women has to come second to whether or not I look bad? (more…)

“I love that moment when you first come downstairs and you can tell the turkey’s already in the oven.” So says the placard outside my local Sainsbury’s, complete with the picture of a traditional Christmas roast. This quotation has started to irritate me every time I leave the house. “That moment”? Is this something with which I’m meant to be familiar? Is it meant to be pleasant? Because to me it sounds frankly disconcerting.

For many of us, wouldn’t our first thought on sniffing the turkey-scented air be “hang on, am I in the right house?” Turkeys don’t just put themselves in the oven, or at least you’d hope not (and if that’s the sort of poultry Sainsbury’s are now selling, I’m steering well clear).

(more…)

Over the past couple of days I have been half-following the #sharedgirlhood hashtag on twitter and the surrounding controversy over cissexism and exclusion. I don’t wish to comment on that directly, not least because it feels like being asked to choose which women have the most authentic lived experience (and all women get quite enough of these arbitrary judgments already).*

One thing that has interested me, however, has been seeing the suggestion that the idea of “shared experience” has no value anyhow. I’ve seen several feminists suggest that because women’s experiences are so disparate and dependent on other inequalities, the idea of a shared experience (whether or not we call it shared girlhood) is at best pointless, at worst a sop for the privileged. I don’t think this has to be true. If women’s oppression is not understood collectively – if sex discrimination is regarded as something that has no internal coherence in and of itself – how can feminism have meaning as a project for women’s liberation?

(more…)

A few days ago I used a neologism which caused a lot of disagreement. I knew exactly what I meant and I was also clear about what I didn’t mean. However, difficulties do arise if for other people, for whatever reason, it comes to mean something else, particularly if that causes hurt. I’m genuinely sorry for that and hence I’m not going to use it here, but I do want to write about what lies behind it. To me it refers to something important (and whatever it ends up being, I still think we need a word to describe it).

Funnily enough, I don’t have a position on whether one should be openly discussing sex or having lots of sexual partners or none at all. I don’t see why I – or, in an ideal world, anyone else – should. I do, on the other hand, have strong opinions about objectification and about how we weigh up the cost of broadcasting particular messages within an unequal, patriarchal society. It’s a cost that isn’t necessarily offset by the free choice of individuals to participate in the creation of these messages, at least if these messages risk having a far broader impact on the freedom  and safety of others. I think this should be fairly obvious (regardless of the final judgment one reaches) and yet when it comes to campaigns such as No More Page Three, Lose The Lad Mags and banning rape porn, somehow it isn’t.

So today I had a bit of a meltdown on twitter. Oops, is all I can say. It’s been brewing for a while. I’ve become increasingly annoyed at some of the behaviour I’ve seen and while it’s possible to ignore it, there comes a point at which it feels irresponsible to do so.

I’m sick of the way in which a minority of largely white, cis feminists and their white, cis male friends have appropriated the concept of intersectionality for self-promotion and bullying. It’s anti-feminist and it’s anti-intersectional. It’s not good enough to pretend you are giving a voice to those who are marginalised when in fact the only voice anyone can hear is you, yelling about Caitlin Moran and Vagenda and why all white feminists should shut the hell up (apart from you, of course).

(more…)

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