So here I am, trying to enter the feminist debate. I have virtually no credentials, unless you count obvious and average lady-parts. Oh, and an inability to shut up when I am angry. So: I am a little miffed, today, by a piece in the Guardian that purports to explain "how the 'new feminism' went wrong." Let's state at the beginning that there is a lot of goodness in this essay -- specifically in how the sex industry and mass culture have created a new and sneaky kind of sexism that brands itself as empowering. This is a useful thing to remember, in a world where they make high heels for infants.
But (and I am going to quote at length) there are some moments that make me raise a dainty finger in the air and chirp, "Question?" Such as:
The young girl's penchant for pinky "girliness" reflects not a belief in essential femininity but an early brand awareness. Her belief that the pickers on the next level favour "girliness" is reinforced by everything she sees. Today's girly isn't passive, but sassy and self-defining.
Completely sold on the myth of "self-invention", today's woman believes herself in control of her life, from birth to the present day. There's no governing philosophy, just an urge to assert her will. She doesn't know what she's doing, but she's damn well doing it.
Heaven help those of us who live our lives without a governing philosophy. We just go around asserting our will all over the place. How will we know what our day means?!
I'm also not convinced that this idea of self-branding is all that new. Seems to me like Queen Elizabeth was all over this about five centuries ago. And it does imply a certain craftiness in our young women and girls that I find appealing. If we're borrowing the appearance of girliness as a strategy, it's a step up from the idea that we're doing it out of some unconscious attraction to pink and ruffles. There are worse things to be than "sassy and self-defining."
Because this is an essay about women and feminism, we have to start talking about sex -- and that means we have to start talking about strippers:
The Equality Illusion is full of grim statistics illustrating pay differentials and the point that poverty often has a "female face". As Banyard demonstrates, it isn't difficult proving that women are more oppressed than ever; the difficulty now is getting them to admit it.
Natasha Walter can't quite. Living Dolls does an excellent job of exposing the brutal reality behind the sex industry's increasingly sophisticated façade. It reads much more convincingly than The New Feminism; she's describing something real. Yet, when it comes to it, she still can't say that any of these things are wrong: "There is, of course, nothing intrinsically degrading or miserable about women pole dancing, stripping, having sex with large numbers of partners or consuming pornography. All these behaviours are potentially enjoyable, sexy and fun."
Yet even in her own portrayal, there clearly is something intrinsically degrading and miserable about pole dancing. It's not about sex, says one of her interviewees, but the illusion of power. Each man wants to believe the no-touching rule has been breached for his exclusive benefit. If women were liberated, pole dancing wouldn't exist. Why not condemn it outright?
Everybody say it with me now: When you outlaw pole dancing, only outlaws will dance with poles.
Natasha Walter is right not to vilify pole dancing, because pole dancing is not the issue here. Pole dancing does not keep women's wages lower than men's. Pole dancing does not tell women they are less human than men are. But pole dancing does happen amidst a cultural power dynamic that privileges the physical pleasure of men over the humanity of women. Pole dancing in the privacy of your own bedroom to please a committed partner is not the same as pole dancing for strangers because you have no other means of paying the rent and buying food. But again: this is not pole dancing's fault. It's just that pole dancing is more interesting to talk about than complex social issues we haven't resolved yet because we've only even been talking about them for a century, if that.
Which brings me to the best part of the essay:
In spite of what is now claimed, feminism has never been about empowerment through choice. You can't simply opt for power – power isn't a fridge or an elliptical training machine. Any strategy in this consumerist register is doomed to fail.
Now there is a point. Is power a limited resource? Is there only so much of it that can go around? And what kind of power are we talking about? The power to speak is not the same thing as the power to be heard or listened to, but they are not unrelated either. If you can't opt for power, how do you go about getting it? Do you earn it? Whose approval do you need? There is an unnamed authority lurking here, which makes me feel ill at ease with Charlotte Raven's thesis.
And feminism is not about empowerment through choice? News to me. In fact, I've been citing this as a major tenet of feminism for a decade now. Perhaps I am wrong? It would not be the first time. Are we back to the definition of feminism as believing that women are as fully human as men? Because doesn't that imply choice?
If awareness returned – if modern woman were no longer disassociating from her pain and victimhood – all her decisions would be different. The things that hurt us would never seem "potentially enjoyable". We wouldn't wear silly shoes, blog about our sex life, worry that our babies are upstaging us. Most importantly, we'd resist the temptation to caricature ourselves. We'd lose the Nigella-esque pinny, the Price-esque lash extensions; the Belle-esque pose of erotic empowerment would seem inhibiting. We'd recover our desire for the missionary position with the person lying next to us.
They can take my silly shoes when they pry them from my cold, dead feet.