"As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes" - spot on or way off the mark?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"So long as she works hard and doesn’t throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes."

Jenny Turner's piece for the London Review of Books, entitled As Many Pairs of Shoes as She Likes, has been splitting opinion and giving people headaches for the past couple of weeks. Supposedly a look into the 'confused' state of feminism today, it's had a very mixed reception. It begins with an account of the behaviour of some of the young women during the London riots. Here, Turner tells us, is 'the problem with feminism'. "Young women ‘of good character’ losing their heads and wishing they hadn’t." Confused yet? It's only just beginning.

Stripped back (a lot), this is an essay about wanting more intersectionality in the movement, frustration at 'consumer feminism' or 'feminism TM'. It's about frustration with the narrow scope of what's now publicised as 'the new feminism' - the books, the groups, the personalities. It has its good points - which should have been condensed and laid out more effectively - but there are bad points too.

It's also pretty scathing at times. Activists from Object and UK Feminista are 'genteel' and 'let-them-eat-cakey', with no place for 'humour or even humility'. Their problem, we are told, is 'narcissistic self-absorption'. The knives are out for Andrea Dworkin (but of course), who was an 'egomaniacal victim-magnet', and Betty Friedan, for only appealing to middle-class women with her writings about frustrated housewives (she has a point). Turner seems particularly 'down' on the 'confusion' of 21st century feminism, but in many ways, she fails to delve more deeply into the reasons the movement is perceived in this way - and this lets the piece down.

I would expect, for example, that the majority of us agree with Turner when she says that the public face of feminism deals little with issues such as race, poverty, international women and economics.

"It’s true that women, as a gender, have been systemically disadvantaged through history, but they aren’t the only ones: economic exploitation is also systemic and coercive, and so is race. And feminists need to engage with all of this, with class and race, land enclosure and industrialisation, colonialism and the slave trade, if only out of solidarity with the less privileged sisters."

You can't fail to disagree that this is important, but it is happening. What Turner doesn't do is give space to the groups and the campaigns that actually focus on these things. And they're not hard to find; they're not hidden, because I read their blogs and follow their updates and get involved with their campaigns. Turner actually quotes the UK-based Black Feminism blog at one point, so I assume she has visited and read it. There are plenty of complaints about the groups and people she takes issue with, but no praise for the countless women working on the issues she thinks we should be paying more attention to. No mention of Women Against The Cuts. Or Climate Rush. Or No Women No Peace. Only criticism that feminists 'don't care'.

"...the 16 per cent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women – around 13 per cent of the workforce – who have ‘careers’ and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 per cent who just have ‘jobs’, organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less," says Turner.

"Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent – mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble."

Here we must admit that this is true among the 'big name' groups and campaigns - and of course this isn't helped when political discussions about helping women in the workplace result in a 'solution' of networking events for high profile London businesswomen and talk of getting women into boardrooms, which is so far removed from the working lives of most women that it's laughable.

Turner's feelings about the issues Object et al work on also seem confusing. These groups - and the women who represent them to the press - are predictable targets for those who don't share their views on porn or sex work. It's never long before words such as 'prim' and 'prudish' and 'snobbery' start being used. Comments about the way members speak when interviewed, making assumptions about their backgrounds. Articles about their work are always met with comments asking why these feminists aren't campaiging on issues that actually matter - that classic withering putdown used by men and women alike.

Turner says she agrees with Object's views on porn, but goes on to say that this is all 'beside the point' in a free-market economy - it's always going to exist and there's nothing that can be done about that. The same, in her opinion, goes for the commercialisation of childhood and that current area of panic, 'sexualisation'. She accuses anti-porn activists of not looking at the world around them and ignoring other issues. Yet several paragraphs later she's bemoaning the way (as most of us do) that modern, media-friendly feminism has become too compatible with the free market and neoliberalism, with its focus on 'choice', 'economic capacity' and whatever women's magazines have decided that 'empowerment' currently means. So if it's pointless and laughable to fight neoliberalism, yet distasteful to support it, what's a feminist to do?

And at the end of the day, is there really anything wrong with groups of activists choosing to have a particular focus? Many other groups and organisations do it; it's not 'wrong'. I tend to focus on particular issues in my blogging and my activism, but that has no bearing on how I feel about a wider range of problems. Furthermore, I already know of two feminist conferences taking place in the UK in 2012 that will have a particular focus on intersectionality. Both have come out a desire from some quarters to see a focus on wide-ranging issues and activism, increasing the profile of those issues and those women so often marginalised by the public face of the movement.

Let's go back to the idea that the movement has become too unpleasantly bound up with neoliberalism, capitalism and all those other unmentionable things (abandoning any Marxist roots) - glossy magazines, the rich, celebrities, "sleek high-end infotainment', as Turner puts it. Nothing new or challenging, just worship of materialism. Like the supposed invisibility of activists who care about intersectionality, the problem here is more often media coverage, media narratives and the way these influence people. It is a major cause for concern - and one that is discussed frequently - that the press chooses to focus only on aspects of the movement which will titillate, cause drama and look provocative. It's also nothing new, as proved by coverage of feminism in decades gone by.

And so this year we saw plenty of coverage of Slutwalk, articles on the protest against the Playboy Club, lots of discussion on this month's 'Muff March' protesting against the rise of labioplasty. Conferences about porn inspired a couple of pieces in the Guardian. For the tabloids, anything about 'having it all' or gender roles within marriage is a guaranteed story. And in magazines, the concept of feminism as 'on-trend' has arisen in the last couple of years, guaranteed to be focused around Sex and the City, Lady Gaga, makeup and boyfriends - much to the chagrin of almost every feminist I know, with its rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'choice' linked to buying handbags or owning a sex toy.

I believe this coverage influences activism and helps create a vicious circle of narrowed aims and interests. Much of what the media has focused on in the last five years has been a 'resurgence' of young women. When you combine the issues of most interest to the majority of the young women profiled (white, university-educated) with the focus on buzzwords such as 'objectification' and 'sexualisation' and coverage of  just a handful of issues, I think this inspires other women to start up activism of their own, which is obviously not a bad thing. This can be seen by the growing numbers of groups based in cities and regions all over the UK. But it tends to replicate the activism seen in the news and done by other groups. Same backgrounds, same concerns, same areas of focus - with less space given to issues which might not directly affect peoples' lives or their current situations.

Turner wants to know what has happened to the old feminist concerns about raising children, shared parenting, nurseries. That's something that seems odd to me - yes, in mainstream consciousness it may seem buried under chicklit and pressure to be the perfect mother, but again, look past media coverage of activism related to all things titillating, and the discussion is there, in many forms. She accuses the revitalised movement of relying on the 'books-as-bombs' model, with said books 'missing out the interesting bits' (politics, economics) in a bid to appeal to young readers. She criticises last year's three-part documentary series on feminist activism, Women, for its lack of diversity - and let's face it, who didn't criticise it? It's all too easy and too lazy - and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth because at times it just reads like smirking nastiness.

The piece runs out of steam before the end, and it feels like it took a very long time to request more of a focus on intersectionality, all the time being unreasonably critical of a movement where you don't have to look too far to find women who do care about a wide range of issues and are just as tired of tedious media coverage as Turner is. You can't disagree with her assessment of certain problems, but I can't say I could identify with her stance on others.

Image via natashalcd's Flickr.

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