Me, the Mike Leigh feminist

This weekend I found myself inadvertently starring in a film. Directed by Mike Leigh, “Jubilee” takes place over the course of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and it explores the lives of a couple whose own children were born around the time of the Silver Jubilee. The gritty realism of family life contrasts sharply with the red, white and blue jamboree shown via the living-room telly. There’s ironic tragi-comedy; for instance, my dad, a keen fisherman, is mourning the death of the garden goldfish due to accidental weedkiller poisoning. There’s bittersweet social embarassment; for instance, my disabled sibling tries to take everyone out for a meal but becomes hugely distressed when not everyone wants pudding. There’s also a complex exploration of intellectual snobbery/ prejudice; my mum wants to know why I think Snow White and the Huntsman is rubbish, given that the Daily Mail reviewer likes it. I tell her I disapprove of the gender politics and promptly look like a knob. It is, in short, a classic, a painfully accurate observation of social mores in 2012. Only it didn’t get filmed, if only because my mum isn’t Alison Steadman and my dad isn’t Timothy Spall.

I would, though, be a totally believable character/cariacature in one of these films. The daughter who leaves home and returns with her head full of posh words, too distracted by women’s rights and feminist theories to bother about disability and mundane goldfish disasters. It’s not quite true – I do, in fact, really feel for my dad, as he loved those sodding fish – but I can see it might be the way I appear. I don’t want to start explaining to my mum how and why Snow White is utter bollocks (I can always refer her to my 4,000 word review). But I sit there thinking “why am I so out of tune with you?” And also, in less charitable moments, “why is everyone else in this family so sodding stupid?”

Since seeing Snow White and the Huntsman I’ve looked at other reviews of the film, wondering whether, actually, it is just me. I’m not surprised to be in disagreement with the Daily Mail – it’s the least I expect – but surely everyone else can see what I see? Apparently not. Here, for instance, is what Grazia has to say:

Kristen’s Snow White is no shrinking wallflower. She gets her hands dirty, fights off monsters and leads an all-male army into battle. As ass-kicking princesses go, it’s an impressive performance. But it’s Charlize’s chilling turn as Queen Ravenna that’s got everyone talking.

This. to me, sounds like a completely different film. It sounds positively feminist (which I did suspect was the idea when the camera focused in on Stewart’s literally dirty fingernails – but why does Grazia fall for this crap?). And then the Guardian is not much better. The fact that Philip French is critical of the film, and clearly isn’t writing a promotional piece, makes the absence of any mention of misogyny all the more obvious (still, he does clear up the dwarf-counting issue – there were eight to begin with). But I read all this and I think, what is wrong with the world? Or what is wrong with me? How come I’m so at odds with the standard line? I thought feminism was meant to be all mainstream these days. And I also thought that, as far as feminism goes, I’m hardly what you’d call hardcore.

In The Future of Feminism, Sylvia Walby argues that “feminist demands may be be explicit or embedded, found in projects that are mainstreamed or not, intersecting with other projects or not. Feminism continues in new forms and new coalitions, even when it does not name itself ‘feminist'”. While I’m not sure I wholly agree with this, I see what she’s getting at. Perhaps you shouldn’t have to label yourself “a feminist” in order to achieve a feminist goal. But the trouble is, I’m starting to worry that in terms, at least, of popular culture (i.e. the frilly stuff that isn’t meant to matter so much but does), feminism isn’t concealed. It’s not just going by a different name on the basis that the word itself is all a bit uncool. It’s just not there at all.

On the internet I know that my perspective is distorted by the people and blogs I choose to follow. There’s the f-word! Feministing! Vagenda mag! The Guardian women’s bit! Plus loads of sodding brilliant individuals! Way-hey! And then there’s the Fawcett Society and Abortion Rights and lots of other organisations who, in the feverish fantasies of men’s rights activists, are mere seconds away from world domination. There’s all of this but what I can’t stop coming back to is the fact that there’s the Daily Mail. There’s still the Daily Mail, and it’s bigger than all these other things that I’ve mentioned. Way bigger.

In this month’s Glamour Caitlin Moran says she decided to write How To Be A Woman because “I thought no one had gone near feminism for 15 years”. I can’t help thinking this is incredibly insulting to all those women who’d spent the past 15 years actually being feminist activists and making a difference. I wouldn’t have thought writing for The Times would make you that isolated from the real world. But then again, how much is feminist activism part of most people’s “real world”? I mean, if you’re going to write a book on feminism, you ought to engage with it, at least a bit. But how much, practically, does anyone else?

Part of “consciousness raising” is accepting that feminism and women’s issues are low on other people’s radar, and that this needs to be addressed. But I kind of expect them to be higher than they are. And when I find they’re not, I want to get all shouty and go “what the hell’s wrong with you? Are you all, like, thick, or something?” As far as consciousness raising goes, this is probably not the best course of action. Still, it would be good to get it out of my system.

And I probably will one day. During a dinner party, in a film called “Coronation”.


6 thoughts on “Me, the Mike Leigh feminist

  1. I know the feeling. I was absolutely stunned to find out the other day that my 53 year old lesbian single parent mum isn’t a feminist. “It just isn’t that important to me” she said.

    It’s times like this when I realise the Internet is a parallel world rather than a reflection of reality.

  2. I saw Laurie Penney tweeting she actually liked the Snow White thing. Therefore feminists don’t agree. Therefore aligning yourself with a movement that itself doesn’t always be very clear about itself may mean some people may not want to identify themselves as thus? Tongue in cheek I mean I know feminists don’t all have to like the same things but there is a lot of things I have issues with in feminism (which you covered very nicely your post on superiority feminists)
    I was one in all but name but only decided to call myself one aged 30. But I still might go back in the closet as I am really struggling with some aspects at mo. I like this post-

    1. The thing about Laurie Penney is, she’s 25, isn’t she? I dare her to go and see the film on her 37th birthday and see if she feels the same way! (not that she doesn’t have valid opinions because of her age; I just mean just as a man might be less sensitive to misogyny, a woman in her twenties might be less sensitive to shit portrayals of women over 35). I am starting to realise that going to see a film which vilifies the idea of women trying to “cheat” the loss of power that comes through ageing is an exceptionally bad thing to do on the day you really start to feel like you’re pushing 40! But I am, to be honest, a bit pissed off that so many of the people who see Snow White as “way-hey, female characters kicking ass!” don’t seem to recognise the basic antipathy towards women, esp ageing women, expressed by the film (particularly by what Ravenna says when she kills the king). Even so, yes, I wouldn’t claim these women weren’t feminists, or that they were rubbish feminists (is there such a thing as a rubbish feminist? Perhaps Louise Mensch). Just that they’ve got it wrong on this one.
      Will check out that post once I’ve kicked some feminist ass at Sainsbury’s.

Comments are closed.