Jan MacVarish will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas on the question, “The F Word: What is the Point of Feminism Today” on Saturday, the 13th of October.
Last month the BBC reported that a survey by Girlguiding UK had found that an “alarmingly high” number of girls and young women “feel unsafe outside their home.” Apparently two-thirds of the 13 to 21 year olds canvassed “either felt unsafe, or knew someone who was fearful walking home alone.” Now, of course, this is a classic inflationary tactic deployed in advocacy research: ask someone not only if they have directly experienced a problem but also whether they “know someone else” who has. The chances of getting the desired response, thus confirming the significance of your pet cause, are immediately multiplied by a factor commensurate with the size of the respondent’s social network and reflecting their particular interpretation of what “knowing someone” means. A close friend? Someone they follow on instagram? A character in a soap opera? The survey also claimed that “more than half had suffered harassment, or knew someone who had.” What was defined as “harassment” was not explained. The BBC journalist who wrote the story was evidently untroubled by questions of methodology and also indifferent to whether the rather depressing responses reflected an actual worsening in female experience or an increased perception amongst girls that they enter the world not just on an unequal footing but in an endangered state.
It’s easy to pick holes in the methods used in this kind of “research” but it is more difficult to explain why the Girl Guides would see this kind of propagandising as conducive to their mission to “empower girls to find their voice” through “fun, friendship, challenge and adventure”. After all, it is hard to imagine confident individuals with a sense of adventure emerging from an organisation which publicises its work in such a negative, problem-mongering way. How can girls go off orienteering in the Welsh mountains or volunteering in a local old peope’s home when they are told that it is normal to fear even leaving the house? It does seem genuinely puzzling.
However, when we see that it was also claimed that these girls were more likely to identify themselves as “feminists” than those asked in the same survey five years ago, things start to fall into place. For all the talk of “empowerment”, this construction of nascent womanhood as essentially “vulnerable” reflects the current dominance of “brand feminism”. This type of contemporary feminist “activism” is little more than a marketing campaign for its own existence. Past feminist critiques ridiculed the way in which housewives were persuaded by advertisers, in the game of flogging multiple cleaning products, of the hazards posed by household bacteria. Today, older feminists are often supportive of the new activists’ drive to create a market for brand feminism by convincing young females that they are under threat from undiminished discrimination, sexual humiliation and violence. And just like other marketeers, the feminist entrepreneurs aim to catch ‘em young. The Girlguiding UK survey results will be a cause for celebration not despair amongst the new feminists: they are evidence of a successful marketing campaign. These girls on the cusp of womanhood have been awakened to the insults and indignities of their place in the world and have found their tribe in the gender war.
This feminist marketing seeks increasingly not just to promote campaigns but to shift actual products. As I write, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies): Amazing women on what the F-word means to them, a collection of celebrity activist essays, is in the news. Fronted by 23 year old Scarlett Curtis, the daughter of Four Weddings screenwriter Richard Curtis and media presenter Emma Freud, and niece of PR guru Matthew Freud, the book has been heavily promoted by the Times and Sunday Times, in which Curtis has a weekly column. A probably confected controversy has been cooked up whereby it was reported that plans for the book to be promoted at a “pop-up” stand in Top Shop’s central London superstore (teen girl heaven) were scuppered by everyone’s favourite fat cat baddie, Top Shop owner Sir Phillip Green, who put a stop to it. Scarlett Curtis tweeted in response to the removal of the pink promo boards:
Despite definite approval from Topshop’s side, it took one powerful man coming in and deciding it was too controversial, to take the whole thing down. It was traumatising for our amazing team who were on site at the time and in my opinion is a pretty definitive example of why books like ours are still needed. All I can say is that if you dismantle our store you better believe I’m coming to smash down the patriarchy in return.
All the triggerwords are there: the “powerful man” (presumably Green is powerful in different ways to Curtis’s powerful daddy and powerful uncle), the “traumatising” effect (as though the riot police had come in with truncheons raised to crush the skulls of the marketing team and teenage shoppers) and the invocation of the “patriarchy”. You can almost smell the cynicism dripping through the twittersphere. But Curtis’s response and the support it received is absolutely revealing of the dangerous game being played with young women’s minds. For this rather strange and generally privileged breed of activist-entrepreneuers have found a sense of purpose and possibly lucrative careers in the project of conjuring up “the patriarchy” and inculcating girls and young women into a sinister cult of vulnerability, where it is normal to be “traumatised” by the dismantling of a marketing display.
Other feminist activist entrepreneurs who make a living from propagandising this jaundiced and destructive worldview include Laura Bates, who set up the “Everyday Sexism” website to encourage women to share tales of badly behaved men or perceived discriminations. She has since published two books which she promotes through social media and tours of secondary schools. When Bates visited my son’s secondary school for the second time recently, a teenage boy was told to the leave the room before the event began because apparently Bates insists on creating a ‘safe space’ for girls to bear witness to the toxicity of boys and men. Sadly, when I spoke to some teenage boys about their exclusion, they concluded that it was illegitimate not because Bates’ claims should be publicly debated by both sexes, but because they thought the “toxic masculinity” message should really be targetted towards themselves and their mates, as likely perpetrators of sexual harm. It seems Bates’ message has reached boys regardless of whether they are invited to attend her talks or are rewarded by their English teachers for good work with copies of the book and visits to book-signings, as girls often are.
Is it just me or is this a bizarre way to socialise teenagers? To tell them that they are about to head out into a world in which the university campus is dominated by “rape culture”, the workplace is rife with sexual harassment and unequal pay, the street is awash with catcalling and stalkers, the nightclub is where drink-spiking and groping require constant vigilance and the home is where domestic violence, date rape or social media abuse are constant risks.
I have been trying to square all this with my own experiences as a teenager of the eighties, a time when gender-bending became mainstream in the form of flamboyant pop stars and the old stereotypes of women as stupider or softer than men were given a resounding handbagging by our first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
As a lefty, Thatcher was a hate figure to me rather than a heroine, and her desire to reinstate “Victorian values” certainly ruled her out as any kind of feminist role model. I was more “feministy” than most of my peers, largely as a cultural rather than a political reaction against the remnants of the more overt sexist culture of the seventies, when women were often portrayed as either dolly-birds, neurotic wives or battleaxes. But my feminist inclinations did not stop me recognising that by the time I headed off to university, there really did not seem to be any significant additional oppressions girls like me we would face as we entered the world as women. Marriage and babies seemed entirely optional, birth control and abortions were pretty easy to come by and whether sex was casual or romantic was an issue for nobody but ourselves. Once on campus, there was no discernible difference in the respect female students were afforded by even the most elderly and unworldly male history tutors and it genuinely felt that we were free to commune with our fellow students as individuals, not as “men” or “women”.
Campus felt like a place of equals and a very free place, with no paternalistic oversight of our private assignations from the university authorities.
In contrast, my mother, a student nurse in Liverpool on the cusp of the sixties, had described how male visitors were not allowed in the nurses’ accommodation after curfew and in daylight hours, the bedroom door had to be left ajar if a man was present. The enforcement of sexual restraint came explicitly through the disciplinary powers of the older female wardens whose role it was to act in loco parentis, but also implicitly through the threat of individual and familial disgrace were an out of wedlock pregnancy to occur. The lack of easy access to legal abortion or even female-controlled contraception acted as a significant brake on “going all the way”. This was not to say that there wasn’t a lot of coupling up and enjoyment of “everything but” (intercourse).
But as my time on campus passed and the eighties turned into the nineties, the atmosphere began to shift a little. The first time I felt our taken-for-granted freedoms being challenged was when AIDs-prevention awareness reached its height on campus, largely through the enthusiastic distribution of free condoms by the Students’ Union at all hours of the day or night. But even then, given how easy the pill was to get from the campus GP, condoms only seemed relevant if we weren’t on the pill or the guy was a total unknown, otherwise, he was “one of us” and therefore not “a risk”. Other sexual risk-mongering was also becoming a feature of campus life. The Student Union Women’s Committee began giving out free rape alarms to female students, apparently in response to vague rumours of peeping toms, soliciting and sexual assaults by strange men prowling the campus. These “predators” were always assumed to be outsiders, sleaze-bags of the “town”, not the “gown” variety. Unlike in today’s “campus rape culture” imaginings, these probably apocryphal tales of dangerous male behaviour were never associated with our fellow male students.
Although we were pretty sceptical, these rumours did provoke conversations about the need for behaviour change to avoid “stranger danger”. I remember one night having to argue forcefully against a well-meaning male friend who insisted that a female friend and I should be chaperoned on our walk back from his room to our halls of residence. There was never any thought that we were under threat inside our mate’s bedroom, only on the underlit pathways of the further reaches of the campus, but we were still reluctant to give up our freedom to wander at will just because a random pervert might pop out from the bushes. A few years earlier, when a school friend of mine was raped and murdered by a stranger while hitch-hiking home one night, I always assumed her murderer to be a uniquely depraved criminal, existing outside the norms of society, not a man with anything in common with other men. And indeed the murderer was subsequently convicted of other rapes.
That it was the Student Union and its Women’s Committee persuading us to restrain our sexual and physical freedom did seem somewhat incongruous but I don’t think I would have associated their calls for caution with feminism at the time. Retrospectively, it seems more like an attempt by the apparatchiks of student politics to find a purpose since Nelson Mandela had been freed and Margaret Thatcher deposed. The campus technocrats’ language of risk-awareness and harm-reduction seemed to have little in common with Conservative attempts to revive the power of shame through ‘back to basics’ attacks on single mothers or homosexuality.
Today’s feminist entrepreneurs communicate their anti-sex message through pseudo-liberated, “stigma-busting” talk of pussies and vaginas. They seem intent on convincing a new generation of girls that sex is something reluctantly possessed by them but desired by men: a worldview in which men are predators and women victims-in-waiting. This new feminism seems obsessed with sex and yet disgusted by it. According to some of its weirder campaigns, women should be free to dress like “sluts” or “free the nipple”, but must never be approached or even noticed by men regardless of which genitals they have on display. This is a movement which seeks not, like the old moralists, to confine heterosexual sex to the marital bedroom, but to eliminate it altogether. Women are instead encouraged to seek empowerment through finding turn-ons by themselves, for themselves.
I have reached the conclusion that this particular development now labelled “feminism” is a reaction against, not a driver of, greater sexual equality and its attendant freedoms. Now that women constitute almost 50% of the UK labour force and the formal barriers to their entry into the public world have been removed, attention has increasingly turned to our interpersonal interactions to explain continued gender differences. This inevitably unleashes a continual supply of new problems because, of course, if you delve into our private lives, you will always find disappointments, hatred and conflict alongside the intimacy, love and support.
While some aspects of domestic life are worthy of exploration, especially the need for changes in the way we care for children, the kind of feminism which has now become mainstream has little to say about the intensification of motherhood, the rise of mother-blaming or the provision of childcare that is good for children and compatible with dual-earner parents. The new feminists will talk only of whether men pull their weight in the home, as though the dream of emancipation will be realised only when our ideal man dons rubber gloves, wields a loo brush and has baby-sick on his shoulder.
Ask any working mother about the demands now placed on them as their “child’s first teacher”, charged with creating a suitably stimulating yet nurturing “home-learning environment”. Ask any grandmother about the level of information and micro-decision-making their daughters are now expected to get right when it comes to a baby’s feeding, sleeping, cognitive development and emotional wellbeing and it becomes clear that the time we now save on domestic chores has been re-applied to emotional labour. It is clear that gender equality in the workplace has not seen off the need to guilt-trip mothers into accepting full responsibility for turning their children into functioning citizens. Yet, mainstream contemporary feminism has been oddly silent about this, instead it has unquestioningly gone along with the “breast is best” mantra, celebrating mothers who performance-lactate as taboo-busting heroines leading the fight to de-sexualise breasts
Perhaps the indifference to the madness-inducing, risk-intense moralising of maternal responsibility stems from the fact that the feminist entrepreneurs see girls and young women as their target market. They are not interested in the complex negotiations within dual-income couples as they handle parenthood or the pressure on the older woman dealing simultaneously with teenagers experiencing existential angst and elderly parents sliding into dementia. For capable women under everyday pressures do not fit the consumer profile of “brand feminism”. The ideal women and girls of the new feminist consumerism are a fragile composite of PTSD, body image issues and low self-esteem, in a spookily unselfconscious reinvention of the female neuroses diagnosed by a genuinely patriarchal medical profession in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today’s female frailties are blamed not on our female brains or our uteruses but on “the patriarchy”, “the media” or “toxic masculinity”.
I suppose if we were to look at the new feminism sociologically, you would have to contextualise it within a wider culture which tends to catastrophise, inflating risks and drawing continuums between mild incivilities and dreadful violent acts. This state of anxiety relies on a pervasive sense of confusion about what motivates people who we do not immediately recognise as being ‘one of us’. In my university days, this was the off-campus stranger, but today we have increased the pool of risky people to include almost anyone and everyone, including our intimate partners and even children. In this fearful culture, there is little room for the subtleties and nuances of spontaneous human interactions, which rely on a sense of commonality and shared social codes. It seems to me that the new feminism, by grouping the world into two tribes, “men” and “women”, offers a psychological framework for ordering that alienated worldview and promises to contain its frightening excesses, the alternative being an even more bleak, one-against-all dystopia.
By continually reinventing the bright lines of an eternal “sex war” a demand is created for deep-reaching rules of engagement, hence the continual call for male re-education, female awareness raising, behaviour codes or actual laws to police the battle lines between males and females. Freedom is sacrificed for an illusory security. Because the feminist entrepreneurs are reacting against freedom, not seeking its extension, they must conjure up “patriarchy” as a naturalised, inexplicable, eternal social driver against which they can rail.
Thankfully, this Manichaean worldview is not so appealing to adults embedded in the normal complexities of real life. There is a profound gulf between the loud voices declaiming all men and boys as potentially toxic threats and the much quieter voices who assume that their fathers, brothers, husbands and mates would be as horrified as they are by another man’s bad behaviour. We realise that most men are our indivisible allies in the upholding of social norms, not complicit with their transgressors. However, there is a real risk that the perpetual insulting of men and boys will wear down their sense of solidarity. The truly toxic force today is not masculinity but the divisive new feminism.
The Battle of Ideas festival takes place at the Barbican in London on the 13th and 14th of October. For tickets and more information, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.