Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When the Personal becomes Apolitical

Thanks to Woodscolt for sending me this vapid and annoying contribution to 21st century feminist theory from Caitlin Moran (no, not the cute children's book character, that's Katie. This is the Times columnist who changed her name from Catherine in homage to the feisty Irish teen rebel in Jilly Cooper's 'Rivals'. [Note: surely this is not really true? Query sources])
The evolution of the women's movement: which one would you choose?
Firstly, I find it difficult to believe that modern women are so confused about whether they are feminists or not that they would turn to a question-and-answer column in The Stylist, London's most overtly sexist free magazine, to find out. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this morning, the females of the metropolis breathed a collective sigh of relief as they finally learned The Truth about themselves and the world.
1.) Can they like Lady Gaga and still be feminists?
2.) Can they wear high heels without Emmeline Pankhurst rolling uneasily in her tomb?
3.) Can they read trashy magazines without metaphorically spitting in their collective sisters' eye? 
At last, these burning questions are solved by Moran, in How To Be A Woman, the twenty-first century's answer to The Second Sex.  (I'm not sure if she answered my own burning question, which was 4.) Do I Even Want To Be A Woman Or A Feminist If That's All There Is To It?)

As a teaser, she laid out the basics today in an article entitled "Caitlin Moran's Guide To Being A Modern Feminist."

Briefly, the answers Moran gave, digested and explained. (so you don't have to go there.)
1.) Yes, but not Rihanna. Because Rihanna wears bondage gear and Gaga wears steak, apparently. Proper feminists love steak as it is 'neurotic, damaged, freakish, furious' and hate bondage gear, especially on 22 year-olds who signed records deals when they were 16.
2.) Yes... sometimes. But Moran has done some basic calculations about fuck-me heels and so is now able to estimate that 'our culture “gets sexy” perhaps 40% too much'. Phew. So now we know. Because being sexy 'takes a lot of energy'. Also, high-heels are like, really feminist and all that, but they won't change the world. You know what will? Comfy old flip-flops. In fact they are Moran's justification for saying that 'Feminism is succeeding'. Forget this boring old article in the Grauniad today. Clearly the women in those countries are still wearing stilettos to their awards ceremonies. The sillies.
3.) Yes, backed up with the startling political analysis 'You can actually be quite a shallow feminist if you want...'
hat's great. I'm really shallow. Do I have to sign something or attend any events? No! Insisting feminists go to feminist events or do feminist stuff is SEXIST! 'After all, it’s not like men are walking around going “I’m only going to declare I’m equal with women when I’ve gone on a march to prevent all war and suffering.”' (I'm not making this shit up. Honest.) How dare men, then, demand the same of us- that we DO SOMETHING before prancing around in our heels to the sound of 'Born This Way' declaring our equal rights in every sphere? You'd almost think that the Patriarchal System LIKED women being downtrodden! What a ridiculous notion! Anyway, I can't march in my Christian Louboutins. You know that. I am wearing them 40% less of the time though. Anything for the cause.
So once again, someone has wasted precious time, energy, computer memory, teabags and fingernail-stubs on composing a comforting accolade to 'Choice Feminism'. Super. Lucky we don't have anything better to read on the way to work or there might be a problem. Moran's article reminded me of Ellie Levenson's 2009 book A Noughtie Girl's Guide To Feminism, which definitely changed my life slightly for the worse. (Read my ancient review reposted here) Then, as now, I criticised the idea that female equality is possible within a basically unjust society. Feminism, then, needs to have a sound political positioning in order to be anything other than a hobby.

I also implied that women may have been fooled into thinking that BUYING SOMETHING can be a feminist act, or that BEING HAPPY is the ultimate feminist goal. That's called Capitalism, folks. I want you to be happy, honest. I even want you to go shopping, no wucking furries. Just don't kid yourself that that's all you can do to change the world. Don't let them tell you that your personal happiness is the most important thing, and that you can achieve that by yourself if you work hard and don't miss a mortgage repayment.

Because you'll never work that out by yourself. Or maybe you will, and then someday you'll have a daughter, or a mother, or even a friend, and her suffering in a sexist society will cause you pain. Honest, it will. I agree that the Personal is Political, but can we just remind ourselves that the Political is also Political for a moment here please?

Why Choice Feminism Is So Popular
What I don't feel I covered in my Levenson review is WHY choice feminism is currently everywhere: in women's magazines, new books, speeches, interviews... Sex And The City mused about the ethics of feminism, high heels and whether to call him first on numerous occasions (and can I just take the opportunity to point out that Carrie is now Happily Married, so somewhere in her wicked, miserable past, she must have done something good.) It is automatically assumed that twenty-somethings are feminists in some way or other at the moment, at least if they're urban, educated, middle class and not too right wing.

This is good in a way, because I don't think that was necessarily the case 15 years ago. (I promise to write something soon about whether feminism is really experiencing a comeback). But I believe that this is partly just a generational coincidence. I always knew I was a feminist, and assumed everyone else was too, because my mother and all her friends were feminists. I grew up seeing the things they did, which seemed important to them; women's discussion groups, pro-choice rallies. They didn't stress about the height of their heels or whether they could read Now magazine. But then, they had hairy legs and read Spare Rib. They moaned a lot about men, to the point where it became rather difficult for me to eavesdrop on them as I always thought my dad was quite nice, and was surprised to learn that he was A Shit.

Obviously, I had no intention of not shaving my legs, and spent a large proportion of my teenage years wondering what other ways I could make myself more attractive to Boys. Why not? Like many in my generation, I took feminism for granted, and it was only after years of casual sexism, workplace discrimination, failed love affairs and the growing realisation that All Was Not Right with the World that I became what I will now rather shamefacedly refer to as a 'practising' feminist. (And I still shave my legs.)

It's only a theory, but I think a lot of these new 'Choice Feminists' are from the same generation as me. I think they, too, wanted silky smooth legs, and to pluck the hairs out of their chins, and a boyfriend like Todd Wilkins from Sweet Valley High. And I think it's been a long road, trying to work out whether we should feel guilty about owning a Gillette Venus or not. My mum was really mean to me for shaving! Should we criticise others who make their bodies even more sexy than we do (up to 40% too sexy)? Should we tell those hairy girls in the dungarees that they, too, are now allowed to devote 5% of their waking hours to 'grooming' and 'pampering'? Probably not, because the hairy girls are likely to tell us to go fuck ourselves. They might even have a sound political position to back this up.

We need to have a 'live and let live' attitude to body image nowadays, because policing women's appearance is one of the things we adamantly reject. So much is clear.

But the step from 'live and let live' to telling women that they can always do anything they like and nothing matters and yes, they are definitely always a feminist, is a fundamentally dishonest one. Despite my dodgy analogy above, feminism is not like catholicism, latent within you for life as long as you repent on your deathbed. It's not a religion at all, it's a political process and an ideology, which contends that we can make the world better by making women equal to men. If you want to do some feminism, get out there and do some. If you don't know how, ask me. Or Wikipedia. Or your mum. Just don't tell women the lie that feminism is there, in your heart, no matter what you do. The choices you make in life are important and they are political, from plucking your eyebrows to chaining yourself to railings. Let's not dismiss them or refuse to acknowledge their importance, just because some of us wear heels and some of us wear flip-flops. We can make choices, a wide variety of nuanced, carefully thought-out choices as well as the odd spur-of-the-moment, ridiculous choice, which are not the same as the choices our neighbour makes. That doesn't mean one of us is a feminist and the other isn't, so don't feel guilty about it. But it does mean that every choice is politically loaded, and to remember the that is to be better armed against the real enemy: the unjust, unfair, patriarchal, imperialist capitalist monster. Oh yeah, you probably forgot all about that one among all the epilation debate, hey?

The Other Reason Choice Feminism is So Popular
Also, these writers are shameless hacks, willing to write any old crap in return for loads of filthy money. Can't blame them for that, I suppose. Now are there any publishers out there for my new work, You're a Feminist when I Say You Are And Not Before? Call me.


Jim Grant said...

Well, I would say that the fact that this discussion goes on and on (what, ten years of SatC now?) rather proves that people deep down know there's something deeply wrong with the whole thing. Call me an optimist...

Frances Grahl said...

I also feel pretty sure that Women in general are not as dumb or self-hating as they are portrayed by the media. Shouldn't really rise to the bait and spend so much time reacting to tripe like Moran's, I suppose.

woodscolt said...

In the Stylist itself the large photo of Caitlin Moran was accompanied by various scrawled captions, one of which read 'Simone de Beauvoir didn't know the half of it'. You know what, Caitlin, I sort of think she did?

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing part of the point as to what choice feminism is about.
On one level it is, as you say, a way of distracting people from the political
into the mundane selection processes of consumption. This applies particularly,
I think, to young single women who can achieve economic freedom to much the same
degree as men, if not necessarily other forms of equality.

I see it as being something different, and more insidious in the context of
motherhood and family life. 'Choice' for mothers means three things. Firstly it
means that they are presented with a series of choices, all of them framed in
terms that suggest they are vital and difficult choices, and in every case the
woman's identity and her worth as a person will be based on what choice they
make. Examples are choices about how to give birth, how to feed your baby,
whether to work in or out of the home, and how to educate your child. Each of
these is framed as a series of alternatives between which a woman has to decide.
She is in a position where some choices, or the (possibly unforseeable)
consequences of some choices, will imply that she is a bad person, or an
incompetent person, or a damaged, incomplete person.

Secondly, 'choice' means that although sometimes, several of the possible
choices are valid, in no case is it acceptable to not take making a decision
seriously, to reject the notion of choosing, to be indifferent or flippant, or
to allow circumstances to make a choice for you. Every decision is an
existential one - it is suggested that you must be one of a number of types of
person, and not to decide based on this is not to have an identity. This is the
aspect that is closest to the choices of consumption. It is not enough just to
consume mindlessly, but rather we must consume in accordance with the image we
and others have of ourselves. Part of a life which is in reality dedicated to
creative and active production, motherhood, has to be rephrased in alienating
terms as a form of passive consumption.

Lastly 'choice' means that women are asked to take responsibility for many
things which are not their fault. It means for example that a women is expected
to take ownership of the fact that either she does not breastfeed, because it
would be difficult for her to do so, or that she does breastfeed, despite it
being difficult for her to do so. If the true feeling of the woman is that it
should not be difficult to breastfeed, this is negated, both by her actions in
either breastfeeding or not breastfeeding, and by what they suggest about her
identity. She is expected either to believe that looking after a child is more
important that work outside the home, or that work outside the home is more
important that looking after a child. Thus there are no women who are forced to
work outside the home, or forced to look after children at home, or forced to do
both, since all women have made 'choices'. In this way the womans lack of real
options is translated into a choice.

Choice is then a substitute for 'control' or 'agency', since women make choices
which are placed in front of them by something beyond their control. These
choices might be trivial, they might be difficult choices between several
equally good or equally bad outcomes, or they might be forced choices where all
but one option is impossible or unthinkably bad. In every case, there is
considered to be no other option but to accept the terms in which the choice is
framed, to make a choice, and to resign oneself not only to the consequences,
but also to being the scapegoat on which the consequences are blamed.

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do
not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing
already, given and transmitted from the past."
Karl Marx

"The theory of free will is an invention of the ruling classes."
Friedrich Nietzsche

Anonymous said...

Referring to Lady Gaga as 'Gaga' - on a par with calling Dizzee Rascal 'Mr Rascal'?

Frances Grahl said...

Surely equivalent to calling Dizzee Rascal 'Rascal'? Not that I would do that, come to think of it. But I might call Duke Ellington 'Ellington'- dropping the title.