Finding privilege: class, gender and social justice tourism

Laurie Penny has a colouring book:

It’s called Finding Gender, and it was sent to me by an activist who knows how much I love social justice and felt-tip pens. In the book, a small child and a robot go on marvellous adventures, and children and nostalgic adults get to scribble on their clothes and costumes, their hair and toys. It’s an ordinary colouring book in every respect, apart from the fact that the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.

It sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? I wonder if there are other books in the series. Finding Class, for instance, where the child isn’t identifiably rich or poor and the person with the crayons gets to decide whether he or she has a pony and a yacht or a half-eaten bag of chips. It’s such a wheeze when an oppressive, abusive hierarchy can be reduced to a few self-indulgent, superfluous stereotypes. You could almost – almost – convince a child that they get to define their own place in a classist, misogynist social structure. As for adults … well, you’d hope most would have a sense that this isn’t quite how things work..

Gender is not simply “clothes and costumes, […] hair and toys”, just as class cannot be reduced to a series of stereotyped activities: “rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job, smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school”. When Jarvis Cocker wrote Common People, he was skewering, with painful accuracy, a 1990s penchant for treating poverty as a form of self-expression: put on a mockney accent, watch a bit of dog racing and it’s as if you never went to Eton at all. We know that this is not true. Poverty is real. It involves being placed, against your will, at the very bottom of a hierarchy. It is not an identity that can be assumed, no matter how much you “think that poor is cool”. Even so, I understand the temptation to pretend otherwise. Like most ex-state school pupils with northern accents, I liked to toy with the idea that my presence at Oxford University offered clear evidence of working class heroics (the fact that my dad is a barrister was, I decided, not relevant to my overall “identity”). I liked to think that because I felt different this meant I wasn’t privileged in the same way as others like me. Play poverty – of the kind Marie Antoinette indulged in at her Hameau de la Reine – is seductive because it makes you feel, not only edgy, but morally pure.

When Common People was first released, I thought it was crass, overly simplistic, using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Looking back, I think the lyrics were too close to the bone. However much you “perform” poverty – however much you queer it – it is, by its very nature, not something you get to choose. It is not something you can experience just because the idea of oppression attracts you: You will never understand how it feels to live your life, With no meaning or control, or with nowhere else to go. And thus it is with gender. Grow your hair or don’t grow it. Wear a dress or don’t wear one. Play with trains or play with dolls. Pick your pronouns, pick your friends, but if you are not born female in a hierarchy which positions women as less than men, you will never be in a position to experience what gender is and does to women and girls.

Like wealth and poverty, gender is a hierarchy which allows for gradations of suffering. Due to gender some women are denied an education, denied the right to vote or drive, denied the right to orgasm, denied the right to control their fertility and denied the right to withhold sexual consent. I am not one of these women. This does not make it fair or reasonable for me to trivialize what gender does, just because I can. I can let my sons wear dresses (and I do). I can challenge gender stereotypes in my writing and actions (and I do). I can sit with my five-year-old, drawing pictures of him as Queen Elsa, and we can both delight at the thought of a world in which he wouldn’t be made fun of at school for wanting long hair (which he is). I can do all of these things but it does not give me the right to reduce something which ruins the lives of billions of human beings to a fatuous matter of choice.

Penny argues that “if gender identity is fluid – if anyone can change their gender identity, decide to live as a man, a woman, or something else entirely, as it suits them – then we have to question every assumption about gender and sex role we’ve had drummed into us since the moment the doctors handed us to our panting mothers and declared us a boy or a girl. That’s an enormous prospect to consider, and some people find it scary”. This is true. Some people do indeed find it scary (although not the feminists whom Penny seeks to belittle with this suitably babyish language). Challenging sex roles is scary is because it involves questioning the global exploitation of women’s bodies and labour. It’s not scary because we don’t like seeing people with penises in pink dresses. It’s scary because a world without gender is a world in which women have to live without subjugation and men have to live without the entitlements they’ve enjoyed from birth. None of us knows how to do this. Of course we’re terrified. Of course we’d rather play pretend, indulging in fantasies of revolution, all the while knowing that “if you called your dad he could stop it all”. But that doesn’t mean that we should. We owe both ourselves, and those for whom gender is more than a game of colouring in, so much more than this.

PS I suspect “doctors handed us to our panting mothers” is cissexist. Hmm. Cissexist, but also consistent with a mindset which positions older women – the TERF generation – within a fixed gender hierarchy so that younger women can liberate themselves by differentiation. Nice.