Rebranding feminism: distortion and inclusion

After taking part in a debate on feminism, the Great British Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh has found herself accused of elitism. According to the Daily Mail, Tandoh “has admitted she thinks The Great British Bake Off is ‘crap TV’ and that the women who watch it are ‘silly’”. Of course, that isn’t anything like the message she was trying to convey while taking part in the Elle debate on whether feminism needs a rebrand. While I’m still not sure I agree with her point, I think this distinction is important. Feminists should be able to state their beliefs without everything being sent through the anti-feminist distortion machine, in which certain key words (in this case “crap TV” and “silly”) are matched to the most appropriate off-the-peg parody of feminist belief and then thrown back in the speaker’s face.

Obviously I can see some associations between this debate and the infamous-within-a-very-small-circle Mumsnet Can you be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist? one. In the latter the key words were “jam,” “heels” and “education”. Put them together and what do you get? A panel of four women who all think exactly the same thing, which is that feminists can’t make jam, wear heels or be stay-at-home mothers. And this myth takes on the status of absolute truth and anyone trying to counter it is accused of not being willing to debate (but who is willing to debate when the proposition being countered bears no resemblance to anything you actually said?). It creates an impossible scenario in which there can never be the slightest connection. The distortion-by-stereotype process is more powerful than words.

We need to find a way around this and, as ever, it’s been suggested that the ball is in feminism’s court. Do we need to change how we present ourselves? Should we learn a new vocabulary, avoid the wrong words, flee from all potential double meanings? Should we always wear heels just to be on the safe side? If everything we do is subject to over-interpretation, is the onus on us to make ourselves one-dimensional, rejecting all space for disagreement and debate? Is this what we have to do and, if we do it, will it be worth it in the end?

I’m not against finding new ways to prompt others to look at the world from a feminist perspective (indeed, I think it would be very odd to oppose it). I’ve nothing against what others might patronisingly call “being accessible”. I’ve never taken a gender studies course, my academic reading on the subject is limited and much of my early feminist thinking came in response to pop music (Neneh Cherry, Madonna, even Bananarama — I don’t care how odd and contradictory that sounds because it’s true). If feminism is for every woman it has to engage with a vast array of experiences and a wide range of languages and registers. If that sounds a little vague, I’m not particularly bothered. There has to be speech, lots of it, even if it’s noisy, complicated and taking place in several spheres. The alternative isn’t one voice but silence.

I’m aware some people don’t like this. Naturally, these are the people we should try to win over — but only up to a point. There’s a limit to the number of times you can hear “but feminism isn’t for me! I feel excluded because I’m [insert your own stereotype of what a feminist hates]! I don’t like the in-fighting!” There comes a point in which you have to say “well, I’m sorry. I don’t want you to feel excluded, but I’m not the one operating the distortion machine. A broad collection of ideologies and movements should be inclusive and open to change, but this isn’t achieved through fear of misrepresentation. We don’t need to limit our vocabulary — on the contrary, we need more words.”

11 thoughts on “Rebranding feminism: distortion and inclusion

  1. “Naturally, these are the people we should try to win over — but only up to a point. There’s a limit to the number of times you can hear “but feminism isn’t for me! I feel excluded because I’m [insert your own stereotype of what a feminist hates]!”

    I’m not sure I agree…are you saying the people who feel excluded from Feminism because they’re not white cis and middle class women don’t have a legitimate reason for this?

    1. Apparently so, just ask tumblr feminists. According to them the WORST thing you can be—aside from a literal Neo-Nazi–is a white, middle/upper-middle-class straight cisgender anything. And god help you if you’re a white straight cismale and dare to have an opinion!

  2. “Naturally, these are the people we should try to win over — but only up to a point. There’s a limit to the number of times you can hear “but feminism isn’t for me! I feel excluded because I’m [insert your own stereotype of what a feminist hates]!”

    I’m not sure I agree…are you saying that women who feel excluded from Feminism because it’s dominated in the media by white cis middle class women don’t have a legitimate reason for it?

    1. No, I’m sorry that implied this – I can see why, given the number of times that argument is made. I am actually thinking of white cis middle class women who essentially complain feminism isn’t for them because it’s not conservative enough – that it needs watering down, making less “academic”, making more celebratory of their choices (regardless of whether the choices have anything to do with feminism or not). The kind of women who might accuse Tandoh (wrongly I think) of being elitist and who wouldn’t want feminism to include trans women or WoC precisely because that makes it too “complicated” in their eyes. I think we should try many approaches for feminism and seriously worry that some are suggesting that if only we could reduce it to a dodgy Lily Allen video, we’d have more success. That can’t be how we measure it or how it becomes inclusive!
      I also don’t really think we should judge whether or not women call themselves feminists. As you suggest, many have very valid reasons not to. However, the “feminism’s not for me because I wear lipstick” etc. bollocks is still alive and well and it’s annoying me that feminists are left feeling they should somehow apologise for that.

  3. I think half the problem comes from everyone having their own personal feeling on what the word ‘feminism’ means. Out of interest after being told I ‘couldn’t be one’ last week because I am a stay at home mum (not by you, or by anyone connected with the Mumsnet thing I hasten to add!) I looked it up in the Oxford dictionary. It says:-
    the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes.

    That simple. I can’t believe many women would deny being pro-feminism on that simple statement. The rest of it is just individuals personal feelings on how to make that work – whether it be heels, how you parent, whether you make jam or not. Big picture it all boils down to that simple statement there, and the rest is for the individual to decide for themselves. I advocate women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes and therefore I am a feminist. The end! If someone else disagrees with my life choices- that is up to them, I will still stand up for their right not to have their chosen path impeded purely on the basis of their sex whether they like my jam or not.

  4. In college (1960s) ardent young feminists told me that to be a feminist I had to be lesbian, vegetarian, and pacifist (despite the fact that I was in favor of equal pay for women, equal rights for women, reproductive choice, etc, etc.: that was not enough.) At that time I called myself a non-orthodox feminist and went right on supporting women’s right to education, equal pay, equal chance at occupations, reproductive freedom of choice, etc.

    I now just say feminist. Feminist, that’s me. I don’t care who thinks I don’t belong to feminism; I know that I support women’s right to be treated as a real person, with real agency, with civil rights equal to men in all phases of life. I don’t denigrate stay-at-home moms (I stayed home to work with a disabled child for years–while writing a book a year, by the way.) I don’t denigrate women who work outside the home (my mother supported us.) Women have the right to make choices.

    So what range is open to feminists? Well, yes, I do make jam. And bake bread. I do not wear heels now, and lipstick only for occasions where I feel it’s needed. Until a few years ago, I rode horses, hiked, climbed. (Injuries and age both have slowed me down.) I knit my own socks (can’t find commercial socks that fit.) I can drive a tractor, truck, or car, and normally get around town on a bicycle. I’ve been married to the same man for over 40 years; I’ve written 26 books, science fiction & fantasy, with adventure and/or military elements. I’m a veteran of military service. I’ve been a volunteer in emergency services. I sing in a church choir. I support political candidates of all orientations who support women’s equality. My feminist friends have included stay-at-home moms, working-outside moms, single women with and without children, women who liked to cook, women who didn’t like to cook, women who sewed, women who didn’t like to sew, church members, women who loathed churches, women who dressed up, women who lived in jeans, women of all sizes and several colors. But all deplored inequality of opportunity, of pay, of freedom of choice, and of respect. All feminists. No two alike.

  5. This is something that nags me too. I am fine with the idea of being ‘accessible’. I am not well-versed in feminist theory and I really dislike the prioritizing of theory over all else. If someone is saying ‘you can’t discuss on my level until you’ve read everything Dworkin wrote,’ that’s making out that reading Dworkin is a chore to get through (and I doubt it is – from the little I’ve read she’s exciting), and a ‘qualifier’. Same with people who say ‘oh, you don’t know what [insert word] means?! How can you claim an opinion?’ It’s not helpful.

    But what I’m not fine with is the idea that ‘accessible’ means ‘vacuously agreeing with everyone’. To go with the jam thing – if I’m talking to someone who’s never made jam I will just give them a recipe, tell them to buy a sugar thermometer and not burn themselves. If I’m talking to my mate who regularly produces about nine kinds plus marmelade, we’ll probably disagree over what we like, how we make it, etc. etc. and we’ll irritate the person who’s never made jam before and does not care about discussions of kinds of pectin or what pectin is.

    No-one will give a toss, cos we know slightly technical language becomes a natural part of people’s vocab when they’ve got enthused about something.

    With respect to Sonya, I wouldn’t define my feminism the way the OED does. It’s the starting-point, but I have no problem with admitting there are opinions I find incompatible with being a feminist, because I believe they’re actively harmful to women, and so cannot coexist with wanting women’s equality. Those things include porn and prostitution – and some others would disagree with me. So, I think it’s not ever going to be that simple. And that’s ok.

    (Feel free to delete this for off-the-wall jam analogies. I’ve not had me coffee.)

  6. From time to time a feminist will try to make a point in public, do a poor job (perhaps too obscure or just badly argued) and then feminists blame it on media distortion. It’s not the job of the Mail to help Tandoh “get her message across”, but to report that which their readers may find interesting. She has bitten the hand that feeds by being dismissive of a TV programme from which she benefitted, and that’s the aspect the Mail have seized upon. As far as trying to make any feminist point she didn’t make it very successfully and that is not the fault of the Mail. I notice that (supposedly feminist-friendly) Elle’s own report doesn’t even try to interpret that particular aspect of Tandoh’s contribution.
    Tandoh has a Twitter following of 51,000, so she is hardly disenfranchised in the communication stakes. She’s had experience of the media reporting on her before, so it’s extremely naive if she thought the press wouldn’t elevate the “crap TV” comments above her feminist point. What’s to stop her now telling everybody via her website what she actually intended to say? Most public debates are video’d these days and I’m surprised Elle didn’t do this and put it on the web so that we can all find out what was actually said.
    In this digital era with democratisation of technology the arguments that feminists can’t get their message through “the distortion machine” become increasingly lame. There are blogs, websites, social media platforms and video/audio streaming that enable feminists to speak direct. However many feminist websites are inward looking (directed at other feminists) and don’t seem to want to have a conversation with wider society.

    1. I don’t really understand what point you’re making. On the one hand, if Tandoh is misrepresented she shouldn’t use her online platform to clarify because it’s her fault it happened in the first place. On the other, if Tandoh is misrepresented, she should use her online platform to clarify because otherwise she’s just being an insular feminist who only preaches to the converted. This makes no sense whatsoever. I think it’s best you let women speak for themselves – they do it much more coherently than you seem able to.

  7. I’m saying Tandoh can and should use her online platform to clarify, having bodged the first attempt at the Elle event. I don’t know why you’ve inferred that I am saying she shouldn’t clarify.
    It doesn’t seem to me that she was hugely misrepresented. The Mail simply went for the aspect of her speech that they thought would interest their own readers rather than the feminist point that Tandoh might have preferred them to. Her own web presence gives her the opportunity to set the record straight. Maybe she is targeting a particular audience with her cookery blog and doesn’t want to bring the feminism into it. If so she is acting similarly to the Mail.
    My comment on insularity was about general feminist platforms, not Tandoh’s specifically. Many feminists seem to want to lurk in ghettos where their views are more likely to find favour, and then complain about misrepresentation when they (or feminists like Tandoh) test their ideas on a bigger stage and it doesn’t come out in the way they intended.

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