I never imagined that a lecture on feminism could be so provocative…
I’m a little late on this one: I’m sure everyone has already read Suzanne Moore’s piece on feminism in the Guardian’s Comment is Free and moved on. But I couldn’t let it pass without saying something about it. And I would have done it sooner were I not overwhelmed with work at the moment, so here goes…
Suzanne Moore has written an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free pointing out that men do horrible things to women and it is time women ditched post-feminism and got angry about it again. Judging from the comments that follow Moore’s piece it looks like the Patriarchy Police were swiftly alerted and came out in force. Here’s a flavour:
I know what feminism is – I have to teach aspects of this nonsense at university – and it certainly isn’t intellectual anything. It is an interest lobby founded on resentment and misplaced envy, seeking privilege for one half of the population generally, and for its own proponents. Those who espouse its doctrines should be regarded as at best misguided and, at worst, deluded, and then ignored.
Christ, I’m horrified that such a wanker is teaching anybody but his attitude is one I’m familiar with. I give a lecture on feminism and popular culture and it really seems to upset some people. Mostly young men, but not exclusively so.
Maybe it’s the way I tell ‘em, although I don’t think I’m didactic or dogmatic and when I first planned and delivered the lecture it really never occurred to me that it would be particularly provocative.
In the lecture I pose a question. I refer to research carried out at the University of Bristol and the NSPCC in 2009, that found that 1 in 3 teenage girls has suffered sexual abuse and that a quarter of girls had suffered physical abuse at the hands of boyfriends. Then I show a selection of contemporary advertisements.
I ask: could there be some relationship of correspondence between the sort of abuse uncovered by the Bristol/NSPCC research and the representation of women in the advertisements like those above and in other media? Or more broadly, is it conceivable that the media and cultural representation of women make violence against women seem somehow permissible? It is an invitation to discussion but the reactions of some students can sometimes be very hostile.
Admittedly most of the class exist on a sliding scale somewhere between having their curiosity piqued about feminist ideas to being politely disinterested. (I rarely encounter any student who would call her or himself a feminist.) But it’s the group that greets the lecture with sullen resentment or outright hostility that intrigues me most. For them the very suggestion that society’s dice is weighted in favour of men is tantamount to dropping your trousers and taking a shit at the front of the lecture theatre.
I’ve encountered students who sat slack jawed and comatosed through every other class, who suddenly could barely suppress their anger at the suggestion that in general men earn more than women and tend to occupy all the top jobs.
I’ve had a student who wrote a vitriolic essay in obvious reply to my lecture, completely disregarding all the evidence and research that pointed to women’s subordinate position. Instead he quoted approvingly one of those angry, white guy websites that argue in all seriousness that women are in the process of taking over the world and are more likely to be the perpetrators of domestic violence than the victims.
Then there is an interesting phenomena in some seminars where young men ‘police’ the debate, sniggering at and disrupting the contributions of anyone who is even slightly well disposed towards feminist arguments. So, to complain about the sexist covers of men’s magazine’s or misogynistic advertisements and pop videos is to risk being accused of being ‘uncool’, stupid or lacking a sense of humour.
I don’t buy all this postmodern, ironic laddism for a moment. If it looks like old fashioned sexism and sounds like old fashioned sexism, I figure, it’s probably old fashioned sexism. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not prudish. I consider myself to have a fairly liberal attitude to pornography, for instance. It can’t all be bad, can it? And I think we have to learn to live with the fact that men find naked women fascinating and arousing, and for the sake of the the species this is a good thing. Indeed, I’m sure that woman also have a sexual imaginary, although I can’t speak with any authority on this. I will happily rant about all manner of things about which I know little but female sexuality is not one of them!
And so I’m confused about why women are not raging about the casual misogyny and sexism that runs through so much contemporary popular culture. My own introduction to these issues came through listening to the arguments in the 1980s over The Sun’s page 3, when even as a teenager I found its images of topless women trivialising, objectifying and utterly bloody sexless.
Now as the father of two young boys I worry that they’ll grow up in an environment where debates about gender are suppressed and they’ll take on all the ignorant attitudes I’ve encountered when lecturing on feminism and popular culture. Of course, I’ll sit them down and try to offer them some good instruction, but frankly who listens to their parents?
‘Now, listen to me children. There are evil, powerful men who seek to control two key aspects of human life: the first is the means of production and the second is the means of human reproduction. That’s why we fight to wrestle the commanding heights of the economy from their perfidious grip, while at the same time insisting upon the liberation of the female body. Got that? Good. Now who wants a politically correct bedtime story?’
That aught to do it…