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I never imagined that a lecture on feminism could be so provocative…

January 21, 2011

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…

26 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    January 21, 2011 6:32 pm

    Yes, things have changed.

    In the 1970s and 1980s life for a hormone filled young, straight and, ahem, only partially reconstructed leftie bloke was a careful negotiation through a succession of unseen land mines, as one was made forcibly aware by a stream of women of just how deep one’s unexamined prejudices around gender went. & how unacceptable they were. &, to put it crudely, how you really weren’t going to get a shot at sleeping with them unless you did something about it.

    Speaking personally, this was a powerful inducement to change. Though, blimey, didn’t those land mines keep popping up in unexpected places. When, in yet another long, lonely, solitary night, one finds one’s self consulting Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology for answers on what to do about one’s blue balls it does tend to accelerate the pace of personal cultural change.

    So here’s my straightforward advice to young women today. Don’t sleep with ’em if they put you or other women down. Don’t sleep with ’em if they mock your concerns. Don’t sleep with ’em if they grab all the limelight/good jobs/ duvet. That’ll teach them*.

    Your mothers knew what was what.

    *I think the word ‘eventually’ should make an appearance in this sentence somewhere.

  2. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    January 21, 2011 6:57 pm

    P.S. Just to confuse matters, Sociological Images wonders if that Dolce & Gabbana ad you post above is really part of a campaign about power generally , not gender per se….

  3. Rab permalink*
    January 21, 2011 8:26 pm

    I became a vegetarian when I was 15 because I thought it would impress girls. It didn’t, of course. But the point is that some men will do just about anything to get a girlfriend, even abandon long-standing sexist beliefs and behaviour.

    But I am genuinely confuse by why so many young women I encounter seem to either simply acquiesce to, and on occasions apparently endorse, what looks to me like sexism and misogyny. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just out of touch and not down with the kids any longer. I don’t know.

    But I know one thing. I’ll never change my dietary habits for love again. Well, I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds…

  4. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    January 21, 2011 8:59 pm

    Yeah, why, oh why, do young* women put up with it?

    I really don’t get it : has there been some collective ‘forgetting’? A bit like the way the whole imagery of the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ thing was ‘forgotten’ in the 1950s, only to be triumphantly re-discovered in the 1960s and ’70s?

    If there has been a forgetting, though, its not the young women’s fault: it’s yours and mine and our partners’. We haven’t passed on the social norms we should have done as a generation. We let The Bastards Grind Us Down.

    P.S. Don’t knock ‘doing stuff to get laid’. It’s a large part of the basic theory behnid Darwinism.

    *I find middle aged and older women are still quite sharp on these matters in general, even the apolitical ones.

  5. Rab permalink*
    January 21, 2011 9:29 pm

    “If there has been a forgetting, though, its not the young women’s fault: it’s yours and mine and our partners’”

    You speak for yourself. I’m the one on the front-line giving the lectures on feminism and suffering the slings and arrows of irate young men… and I’m not even doing it to get laid!

    • February 6, 2011 10:36 pm

      Does doing it to get laid or doing it for money make one the bigger whore?

      • Rab permalink*
        February 7, 2011 11:07 am

        We are all Prostitutes, The Pop Group…

        Don’t you just love post-punk, Marxist funk?

      • February 7, 2011 1:31 pm

        Good stuff indeed. Hardly Paul Robeson though!

  6. January 23, 2011 3:50 pm

    I became a vegetarian partly to impress and rather improbably it worked. Happily married and a vegetarian for nearly 2o years.

    Thanks Rab – a great article

  7. January 23, 2011 6:51 pm

    Hey Johnny,
    Good to hear from you, comrade.

  8. January 23, 2011 8:48 pm

    Very interesting post. I don’t have the same opportunities to lecture on the subject but I do notice the gender dynamics in classes – at its most obvious it’s depressing how the girls and boys sit in separate groups unless they are actually a couple.

    But the really interesting question is, as has been said, why younger woman don’t behave more like their mothers. It could just be that women become more assertive with age. But more likely, I think, is that mothers come from the ‘have it all’ generation, where women changed but men in general did not. Young women brought up seeing their mothers struggle with a full-time job and with running the home while their fathers went to the pub (or got involved in left-wing politics) probably throught emancipation was a mug’s game.

    The challenge for this generation is to provide young women with the confidence to challenge sexism and to set out what they want from life, including a life that doesn’t exhaust them.

  9. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    January 23, 2011 10:14 pm

    Naw, Rab, giving lectures on *anything* ain’t the front line here, not even on feminism. The front line is what we teach our kids – and what we teach ’em not to put up with.

    (Says the father of a 11 yr old girl)

  10. Rab permalink*
    January 23, 2011 10:46 pm

    I sometimes wonder what influence parents actually have over their kids. I don’t know if I can compete with the advertisements, pop videos and cartoons. How do you convince a horny teenage boy that the smörgåsbord of female flesh on display for his pleasure in pop culture is a political problem.

    You’re right, of course, the lecture theatre is not the front-line. There is no front-line just lots of little skirmishes in different spheres of life. I suspect that if as parents or teachers we think that a simple rush-and-a-push-and-the-land-is-ours will win the day we’re mistaken. This is a long war of position.

    I think it’s interesting that you mention young women watching their mothers struggle with ‘a full-time job and with running the home while their fathers went to the pub (or got involved in left-wing politics) probably throught emancipation was a mug’s game.’ I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the things that feminism needs to address again is the ideology and organisation of domestic life and work, and the relations between the two of these. In fact, I think I’d go further and say that we need to seriously appraise our domestic and family life – how we think about it and we live it. In short, the ideal of an atomised, home-owning, nuclear family unit is a form of political and social mogadon.

  11. January 23, 2011 11:01 pm

    Rab – ‘the ideal of an atomised, home-owning, nuclear family unit is a form of political and social mogadon’ – absolutely, but sometimes after a hard days work that’s exactly what I want. However, it’s not good for us all as a society – we do need to interact more, and as well as exmaining the domestic division of labour, need to question what really needs to be done at all. I have pretty much given up on ironing recently and am kicking myself when I think of the time I’ve wasted on it over the years. Plus anything that can’t get prepared in 20 minutes tops doesn’t get cooked in our house

  12. CharlieMcmenamin permalink
    January 24, 2011 10:03 am

    The thing is less of us live in nuclear families – or, more precisely, most of us now live in nuclear families for shorter periods of our lives ( I lived in one for my first 18 years, then not again for another 19 years for instance).

    The thing is, though, this pattern can lead to some radically different expectations on the ‘what really needs to be done’ front, to use Jenny’s phrase. Personal habits in the domestic and cultural spheres increasingly build up outside families. Forming a nuclear family means re-negotiating these.

    How one does this, how one creates a web of unexamined ‘normality’ for one’s kids is how you influence them, not by telling ’em stuff. It’s what they see and hear of gender relations when you think they’re not watching that matters.

  13. Mark permalink
    January 25, 2011 6:37 am

    I think that the problem with feminism is the name. I can understand the use of the term to dismantle legislation which specifically discriminates against women, but if the argument is about whether gender based roles are damaging to men as well as women, then wouldn’t “neutralism” or something similar be a better term? The word itself is provocative and so is an emphasis on the experience of women.

    If we’re claiming that women do have a harder time of it than men in our culture, there is plenty of ammunition for angry young men to disagree – the suicide rate, likelihood of becoming a victim of murder etc. It isn’t clear that they are being idiotic or immoral by doing so.

    Also, I think that the emphasis on gender balance within the elite is unlikely to make much difference to your average persons life, for obvious reasons. It’s not really that big an issue.

  14. Rab permalink*
    January 25, 2011 8:11 pm

    Welcome Mark.
    The term feminism is certainly a red rag to some people. But so is any word assigned to any movement concerned with human liberation.

    I think though anyone who is simply put of by the name adopted or given to a particular politics is never going to seriously engage with the politics itself.

  15. wartimehousewife permalink
    February 2, 2011 10:57 pm

    Hi Rab – thanks for such and interesting and thought provoking article. Those advertising images really shocked me -I assume they weren’t shown in the UK? Would you object if I wrote a companion piece to your article, asking people to read yours first, with a link? I thunk and thunk about a comprehensive comment to put on your piece but couldn’t do it without writing a dissertation. Let me know if this is OK.

  16. Rab permalink*
    February 3, 2011 7:28 pm

    Hi Wartime.
    Good to hear from you.

    I think many of the ads were/are available in the UK. I have other equally shocking ads from abroad that I show in the lecture. I look forward to reading your article on the issue.

  17. judithgunn permalink
    March 27, 2011 7:55 pm

    For the past couple of years I’ve taught the Dolce & Gabbana campaign and tried to illustrate to my students (young though they are) some of the less appealing elements of the D&G image. They were unimpressed by my argument. This image of FF Coppola and daughter offended them – is it my mind or theirs?

  18. Rab permalink*
    March 27, 2011 9:40 pm

    Hi Judith,
    Good to hear from you. I’m intrigued. What offended them about the image?

  19. judithgunn permalink
    March 28, 2011 5:34 pm

    Well initially they did not realise that it was father and daughter, and thought that Sofia C seemed seductive and FF was an old man lusting after her. When I explained that it was father and daughter, that made it worse! They were still convinced there was sexually inappropriate behaviour going on. I suggested that a good father daughter relationship can include sitting at your dad’s feet, without any suggestion of inappropriateness, they are 16 – 19 so they are a bit obsessed but still!

    • Rab permalink*
      March 29, 2011 4:32 pm

      I find some of my own students a bit pruddish, which I’m surprised by since I’m always inclined to think of them as quite free-thinking. One student scolded me once for showing Rita, Sue and Bob Too, saying that she thought it was outrageous that a film should find humour in a married man having sex with two fifteen year old girls. Well, since you put it like that…

      Another complained about the scene in Ratcather were the two young people share a bath, and the young women gets out of the bath to have a pee. I’ve always thought of the scene as a sort pre-lapsarian/Edenic moment among the rising filth of the tenements. But a student complianed that the scene was ‘unnecessary’.

    • December 14, 2011 4:12 pm

      A lack of research is the antithesis of a good student. The representation of women in the media is of vital importance ‘[artists] must see for people-reveal then to themselves and each other.’ In whatever we create, we must be socially responsible.

  20. Rab permalink*
    December 16, 2011 9:04 am

    Welcome Liam,
    ‘A lack of research is the antithesis of a good student.’ Couldn’t have put it better myself…


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