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Archive for February, 2013

Fifty years ago this week, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, widely hailed as the foundation stone of second wave feminism. One hundred years ago the British Suffragette movement was at its radical peak, and June of this year will see the centenary of the martyrdom of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby.  Such things are always arbitrary, but this seems a reasonable moment to join Ellie-Mae O’Hagan in celebrating feminism’s angrier flanks.

I’m really not much of a fan of Friedan’s tome and had some issues with Ellie’s article, but the core of her argument is a good one. “To put it bluntly,” she wrote, “a new feminism should not be afraid to piss people off.”

If a political movement for change is not pissing people off somewhere, it isn’t worth a wet fart. That said, just pissing someone off is never enough. To be effective, political activism needs to somehow threaten or disturb the very structures and mechanisms of society, and those are always fiercely guarded. Ellie-Mae O’Hagan, better known as an anti-capitalist and tax justice activist than as a feminist, perhaps gets this more readily than most. It is certainly difficult to even look at the cover of the new Sexy Feminist book with anything but derision or nausea. Whatever one’s feelings towards Caitlin Moran, it is hard to deny that if she really represented a threat to the established patriarchal order, she probably wouldn’t have become rich and famous through the largesse of Rupert Murdoch.

Moran and the Sexy Feminists are the latest incarnations of the feminism of personal transformation, a safely corralled, individualistic philosophy of self-fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with that, it is genuinely a good thing if people can be made to feel better about themselves, or simply entertained and amused, by gaining a stronger appreciation of how their gender has impacted upon their lives. Ironically perhaps, The Feminine Mystique could be described in the same way, albeit with fewer jokes and vajazzling tips. The historical importance of Friedan’s book is that the story didn’t end on the final page, but continued into the political realm with the creation of the National Organization of Women, the Women’s Strike for Equality and the National Women’s Political Caucus, all of which had a profound and lasting change on the world. The Feminine Mystique didn’t just make readers angry enough to want to change their lifestyles, but to change the very foundations of society.

By coincidence, the Good Men Project this week published an impassioned defence of angry feminism by Anne Theriault which raises a similar point. This section in particular captures my feelings perfectly:

“…anger can be a good way, sometimes the only way, to fuel change. Anger at injustice is often the spark that ignites political and social movements, and anger can keep you fighting the good fight even when all your other resources feel used up”

You may recall a certain article by Suzanne Moore which was republished recently and became notorious for the wrong reason, but that too covered the same ground. Although probably due more to a moving spotlight than a shifting agenda, angry feminism is right back in vogue.

There is an important difference, however, between the angry feminism of the 1960s and its descendant. Back then there were few statutory protections for women and discrimination was all but omnipresent, Women had few reproductive options and abortion rights, virtually no legal protection from spousal abuse and sexual violence or harassment and sexual choices were tightly constrained by custom and even criminal law. Those issues and many others presented tangible, specific battles for social justice to be fought and won.

The transition from second to third wave feminism is usually pinned to changing perceptions of gender and sexual identities in the era of academic postmodernism, but I don’t think it is coincidental that the ideological shift happened at almost exactly the same time as a practical, political shift in the goals of feminism. The criminalisation of rape within marriage in England in 1991 marked the removal of the final significant structural flagstone of patriarchy in British law. Since then, it seems to me, feminism has fought on three separate fronts. The first has been to protect some of those hard-won rights from reactionary backlash, as necessary. The second has been to challenge various forms of the sex industry and sexualised media. This has proved particularly difficult for feminism, not least because it pitted the rights of women to live free from the (supposed or alleged) harms of prostitution and pornography against the rights of other women to make a living from their own bodies as they choose, or create and enjoy erotic pleasures of their own choice.

But the final battle for feminism is the biggest and toughest of all. It is the battle to change individual attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.  The articles by O’Hagan, Theriault and Moore provide between them a long list of reasons for women to be angry: the continued prevalence of sexual and domestic violence, rape apologism, widespread sexism and misogyny, gender stereotyping and discrimination, all common in numerous manifestations in our own societies and around the world. It is striking, however, that they proposed not a single legal or structural demand between them.

In her piece on The Feminist Mystique for the New York Times, Stephanie Coontz asked why, after decades of progress, women’s strides towards equality in the US have halted or even reversed. Rather reductively, I think, she attributes it broadly to a failure of workplace culture and rights to keep pace with modern attitudes and lifestyles. Coontz fails to notice that in the UK, where the workplace rights she applauds remain stronger, we are seeing the precise same effects.

Changing a law that allows an employer to appoint a less qualified man over a more qualified woman is easy. Changing an attitude that leads an employer to perceive a man to be more qualified, or indeed an attitude that leads a woman to believe she is less deserving of a promotion or a pay rise than a man, is much, much harder. It doesn’t an Act of Parliament to change this – it takes a social shift over generations.

Progress is happening. This week the British media are consumed with the allegations of sexual harassment against senior Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard. It is notable that this scandal centres on questions of who in the party may have turned a blind eye to sexually predatory behaviour or covered it up. There is no suggestion from anywhere that his behaviour should or could have been considered acceptable or reasonable. Just a generation ago (indeed perhaps at the time it was alleged to have happened) such behaviour was broadly unremarkable in politics or anywhere else.  The national mood has changed.

I understand that feminists are angry about sexism, misogyny, discrimination and violence against women, indeed they should be, and I share their anger. I understand that many men (and women) are angry about society’s tolerance of violence against men and boys, the marginalisation and othering of male victims of domestic and sexual violence, discrimination against fathers in family courts and the social perception that men’s health and wellbeing, even men’s lives, are of incidental importance. I share that anger too.

Anger is not incompatible with compassion and empathy, it is often the product of them. Indeed, unless it is tempered with compassion and empathy, anger can easily be misdirected into fascism and hatred. When I despair of debates on gender (which is often) it is usually because those involved, on either or both sides, have found their anger but lost their compassion. That is a dangerous mix.

The reasons and the need for anger go way beyond issues of gender. Take a look at the world, or even your own little corner of it, take in the panoramic vista of injustice, inequality, abuse, violence and exploitation, and if you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention. We should all be angry with those who abuse, who assault, who exploit. Those who abuse, assault and exploit on an industrial scale should reap anger on an industrial scale.

Anger has changed the world before, for both better and worse and it doubtless will do so again. We should all be proud of our anger. It is our responsibility to ensure we use it well.

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So Rupert Murdoch has hinted on Twitter that he may be rethinking his 40 year mission to deliver a daily couple of nipples to the breakfast tables of the nation.

In a reaction on Comment is Free, Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that nudity is not the principal problem with Page 3. “The presence of a few designer labels in the crucial areas makes little difference if the poisonous attitude remains the same,” she wrote. I broadly agree. My general take on the issue is that The Sun is a paper which peddles the exploitation, vilification and undisguised hatred of, well, just about everyone. The focus on Page 3 seems to me to miss the broader point, but more precisely, my problem with the tradition is not the nudity, but the way that it uses women as decoration, implying that a woman’s most significant role in the news media is to provide eye candy for a predominantly male market. Related to that, my main problem with the campaign against Page 3 is that by focusing on the nakedness, it veers rather close to an anti-nudity, even anti-sexuality narrative. It seems to say that exploitation is just fine, so long as you keep the boobs covered up.

While I generally agreed with Rhiannon’s main point, there was one paragraph in the article that betrays a profoundly mistaken view of what Page 3 is and does, and how it is viewed by men. It’s an extreme example of an argument that is often made by feminists within this debate.

I remember, as a teenager, how awful it was to be sitting next to a man on the bus leering at Page 3. I remember the embarrassment, the discomfort, at the lascivious drool coming from his chops, and the physical revulsion at his presumed erection from looking at a girl pretty much the same as me

…it’s about the sense of entitlement, the presupposition that an entire page of a national newspaper should be given over to the sexual gratification of men

Of course one can never underestimate the diversity of human personality and sexual behaviour, and I need no convincing that women experience the most rank sexual harassment and intimidation on public transport. I will take it on trust that at some point(s) in her life Rhiannon really did find herself sitting next to some freak who was “leering at Page 3” with “lascivious drool coming from his chops” in such a way that she presumed he had an erection from all the “sexual gratification” on display. I do, however, strongly reject the implication that this is how men typically view Page 3.

Straight men generally find pretty young women attractive. They are drawn towards them. Pretty young women with clothes on are attractive, and pretty young women with fewer clothes on are even more attractive. Boobs are nice to look at. I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in making that assertion.

Murdoch started putting semi-naked women in his newspapers back in 1970 to attract buyers, in exactly the same way that car show exhibitors drape models over the bonnets of their cars. He figured that if men are attracted to women with their tops on, they would be even more attracted to women with their tops off. And he was probably largely correct about that.

However attraction is not the same thing as sexual arousal. If images in The Sun or any other paper were genuinely sexually arousing they would actually lose readers. Murdoch has always wanted The Sun to be something that families could have lying around the breakfast table. That’s why the classic Page 3 look has always been strangely sexless and innocent, all happy cheerful smiles rather than the sultry, seductive pouts of pornography, even softcore porn.

Here is a fundamental truth about men: we hate getting erections at inappropriate moments. It is embarrassing and (literally) uncomfortable. The greatest horror is to get an erection at work or when surrounded by your mates. Men (and teenage boys in particular) develop all kinds of squirming techniques and tactics to try to disguise them. If we thought reading the Sun was likely to produce spontaneous erections at inopportune moments, we wouldn’t buy it, or we would but would keep it hidden under the mattress with the porn mags.

I suspect one of the reasons why Murdoch is now considering covering up the nipples on Page 3 is because he realises that they’re not actually that important a part of the equation. He started using them 40 years ago because he thought he could get away with it and it might add to sales. He now knows he could take them away and it wouldn’t really make any difference, because the nipples really aren’t what it is all about.  The likelihood is that Murdoch can grant campaigners their victory, get some good PR, and continue to use women in the same exploitative, sexist, decorative way he always has.

There is a tendency among some feminists to assume the worst of male sexuality. I understand where that has come from, but it can lead debates on topics such as sexualisation, porn and objectification to be conducted rather at cross purposes, and to generate a lot more heat than light. I don’t doubt for a moment that when a woman (especially a very young women) sees a man looking at The Sun, and specifically Page 3, she might be made genuinely uncomfortable by it. She may genuinely believe that the man is awash with lust, drooling with sexual gratification and sheltering a raging boner underneath his newspaper. I would suggest that unless the man has just escaped from decades in a monastery or is about 12 years old, this is almost certainly not the case. Much more probably he is thinking something like “she’s cute, nice tits, what a ridiculous speech bubble they’ve given her. Wonder if United will win tonight.

Perhaps there was a time when Page 3 was still sufficiently new, daring and shocking to produce a frisson of genuine sexual excitement, but those days had passed long before even I hit puberty  – a long, long time ago. When I was 13, round about 1980, we boys were on a perpetual hunt for sexual stimulation of any kind. Copies of Mayfair and Penthouse would be dealt and shared like valuable contraband. Even then Page 3 would barely register. It was what you might wank to if you couldn’t get hold of your mum’s Kay’s Catalogue lingerie section.

This wouldn’t matter too much were it not for one nagging concern. I can’t help thinking that the reason many women suppose that Page 3 is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire is because so many other women have told them that Page 3  is the salient tip of a huge iceberg of slavering male sexual desire. Perhaps it is time to turn the page on that particular myth.

I have no wish to undermine or resist feminist campaigns against Page 3, on the contrary I think it we’d have a slightly better society without it. On the other hand, I’d prefer if we could have that debate and that campaign without the need to further demonize male sexuality. Whatever Page 3 might be about, it is really not about sex.

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The London Review of Books blog has taken note of the forthcoming anniversary reissue of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. In particular, they have noticed the cover – which appears to have been designed by the team responsible for Sophie Kinsella’s Sex & Shopping oeuvre. It really couldn’t be more inappropriate, disrespectful or, sorry but I have to say it, bloody hilarious. here it is alongside its more famous predecessor.

belljars

Once I’d stopped chuckling, I set to wondering whether it might be possible to design a book cover for a vintage feminist classic that would be even more crass, tasteless and wrong?

Well it turned out I couldn’t. But I gave it a good go. Can you do any better?

Second Sex

Gender Trouble

Intercourse

fatisafemiistissue

SCUM

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