Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Deborah Orr is a bit mean about feminism, suggesting that its “influence […] on contemporary society is overstated”. Obviously this upsets me. Feminism is my fwend. I don’t like people being mean about it. So there. She also proposes that when faced with misogyny “we need to say a great deal more than: ‘This is horrible. Poor us'”. Sod that. I just like saying “this is horrible. Poor us”. There’s nothing like undirected bitterness to fuel the feminist fire.
Obviously I’m being sarcastic, unlike Orr, who is being “reasonable”. She’s written one of those pieces that even the most ardent misogynist – who won’t actually think of himself as a misogynist – might consider “reasonable”. It ticks all the boxes: has a go at feminism, crediting “progress” for all the stuff for which we’ve been thanking it; bigs up the lives of middle-class women, who have opportunities galore and do sod all to help anyone else; stresses the need to understand why men might be a bit cross with women and want to photoshop their faces onto pictures of female genitalia; emphasizes the fact that thus far feminism has been about moaning and wussy supportive networks and absolutely nothing to do with getting to grips with the True Nature of Misogyny. This is unlike Deborah Orr, obviously, who wishes to highlight the “unfortunate consequences” of all this:
One is that many women have an inflated view of the practical efficacy of feminism, and continue to place uncritical hope in it. Another is that many men have a similarly inflated view, and see feminism, and the women who seem to have benefited richly from it, as the focus of their angry feelings of failure and rejection.
Hence said men are “hunkered over the web, superimposing vulvas on to the noses of historians and sharing it with like-minded chums on a website designed for the purpose”. And what are we feminists doing? “Speaking out.” Yet as Orr notes, while speaking out is not the problem, “it might be time to accept that [it] is not the solution either”. Wise words indeed.
In an effort to be similarly reasonable, I will cast aside my naive, scattergun feminist ire for a moment and say this: I think Orr has a point. Or rather, I think she has a point if you assume all of the following to be true:
- feminism has been solely about middle-class women gaining access to higher education and middle-class jobs (and not about, say, sexual and domestic violence, sexual liberation, the pay gap and broader financial inequality, reproductive rights, social and political exclusion, challenging gender stereotypes etc.)
- all misogynists are men’s right activists, middle-class men nursing bitter resentment about the way in which middle-class female progress has totally screwed them over. Old-style misogyny – the kind of thing that meant there was a need for said progress in the first place – doesn’t exist any more.
- all feminists are journalists and not researchers, activists or support workers – you know, people who really do go beyond saying “poor us” and actually get their hands dirty. Because no one has done that as yet.
- it is easy to separate the effects of “technological and economic change” on the status of women from anything that feminism has actually achieved. Once you start noticing the former, feminism starts to look a bit airy fairy and rubbish by comparison. Hence it can’t be an inseparable combination of these things, just a lucky coincidence for which the women’s movement has unjustly claimed credit.
Alas, I don’t think any of the above are true. In fact, I think it’s horrible. Poor me.
It’s not that I don’t want to be constructive, or that I don’t think there’s any value in examining the motives of those who fundamentally hate women. I just don’t believe Orr is offering an effective strategy for this. On the contrary, it’s one that seems to smack of too much immersion in the petty bitterness of the average MRA and too little engagement with attitudes to women which are more deep-rooted and ongoing than that. Misogyny has a long history. Pretending that it can now be located within the past 200 years, on the assumption that everything else has withered and died, seems dangerous to me. So too does deciding that it’s all a question of men who’ve decided to “turn their anger on women”. I know men who are not angry or bitter, men who have done very well in life, who nevertheless consider themselves to be better than women. It’s not a defensive response to anything, it’s just what they’ve been brought up to think. They don’t even think they hate them (“but I love women!”). They consider themselves to have greater value because they are surrounded by so many cultural messages which reinforce this. Challenging these messages is another of the things which feminism does (when it’s not just women sitting around having a moan).
One of the things I value about feminism is that it is not just one fixed, limited project. It’s not merely a group of women sat around “supporting” one another while Rome burns. It’s become integrated into different areas of our lives – social care networks, academia, education, politics, healthcare. Media engagement – the kind of consciousness raising one might uncharitably term the “poor me” approach – is just one part of what’s happening. It’s not a part of which I’d be dismissive, but it’s hardly the whole.
So anyhow, that Deborah Orr article made me a bit angry. Which is a shame, since I’d really liked her piece on transphobia the week before, although I’m worried it will now be followed by a piece on how all of us – each and every one – needs to stop calling out hatred and really get to grips with why Julie Burchill is upset. Now there’s a real question for modern times.