The return of Spare Rib: here to save a movement?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

This week we've heard that journalist Charlotte Raven is relaunching Spare Rib magazine. Reactions so far show that people don't seem too sure about what this means. Some are excited - and with good reason; the idea of a feminist magazine sitting "alongside Cosmo on the newsagent's shelf" is what many have wanted for years. Others are troubled - and queasy - at the idea of a launch event involving George Galloway and Rod Liddle dressed in costume and serving drinks (although it's currently unclear whether or not this is Raven's idea of a joke).

Putting that thought out of our minds for a moment, however, there are a lot of things to look forward to about the promise of a feminist magazine in print. Its tagline, 'Life not lifestyle', is a great nod to the fact that issues affecting women are invariably consigned to the 'lifestyle' sections of newspapers and websites. Its founder is citing Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman as inspiration for what she wants Spare Rib to be.

"SR will revive the spirited and soulful vision of feminism that SR once embodied, not the timid liberal one that dominates the mainstream media," said Raven this week, something that again should be something to look forward to, as long as the magazine doesn't become, like the mainstream media, a place for cliques of privileged friends to write about a narrow range of issues and speak up for each other at the expense of those who are less well-known, causes that are less fashionable, and groups of people who are less privileged.

That's probably something we should be wary of, with talk of the magazine as a 'member's organisation' according privileges to those who can afford to donate more than £100 to the cause, and monthly 'immersive theatre events' open to members only. Of course I'll have to reserve judgment on this point until the magazine gets up and running, but the red flag is there.

Sophie Wilkinson, writing for the Observer today, welcomes Spare Rib's return, but not just because there hasn't been a feminist magazine on the shelves for years. No, it's because it will provide an antidote to 'internet feminism'. In the past year, 'internet feminism' has become a catch-all term for over-the-top drama, Twitter bullying, hounding of journalists, the ostracising of women who aren't the 'right sort', and behaviour that's supposedly putting a whole generation of women off supporting the movement. While you can't deny that drama has occurred, the 'internet feminist' is threatening becoming another strawfeminist, the updated version of the dungaree-clad man-hater wielding a bra and a blowtorch.

Wilkinson describes the internet as a place where "lazy clicks equal approval, retweets supersede debate, feminism is twisting and turning in on itself". She writes about the way the internet, though a force for good that has had a democratising effect, has ultimately led to women being less supportive of each other, of more fractured debate. Spare Rib, she hopes, will save us all from internet feminism, a "guiding light" and voice of reason in a time of "idle clicktivism".

It's sad that in lampooning online activism she's failed to take into account the fact that much of this is related to, or translates into offline action from groups and individuals that have used the internet to come together, share information, and gather support. The internet is a space where we can learn about things that fall outside our life experiences and our comfort zones. It is a place where women who struggle to do much offline activism due to their location or their health or their job or their family circumstances can do something, and this is a point that must never be forgotten or dismissed.

In suggesting that feminism today has little to do with 'genuine activism', Wilkinson sadly ignores everything taking place across the country at grassroots level, the networks and organisations and campaigns, and focuses on Twitter-based so-called 'infighting' as the reason that the magazine will be a breath of fresh air. It's also ridiculous to assume that a more 'reasoned' approach to feminist thought in printed form wouldn't be divisive. The minute Spare Rib is published, people will be poring over it, ready to write and talk about which bits they liked, which bits they hated, which bits they felt were problematic. As someone who read the original said to me this morning, the letters page of the magazine in the 1980s was continually full of argument.

Sometimes it may feel as if circular 'dramas' involving the same 20 people are dominating 21st century feminist discourse, but the actions of countless women everywhere else should demonstrate otherwise. We're going to have to wait to see what Spare Rib will become, but in the meantime it's probably best if we don't position it as the saviour of a movement represented by clicktivism and Vagenda.


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