29 Jan 2010

Book Review

Because anything that purports to be a 'modern guide to feminism' is likely to be controversial, I'll try to keep my take on The Noughtie Girl's Guide To Feminism by Ellie Levenson to a 'I agreed with this/this made my head meet the desk' list, to avoid excessive ranting. No doubt it'll fail as soon as I get onto the latter part, but I'll try.

What I Liked/Agreed With

  • Levenson comes down firmly on the 'Ms' side of things, and rightly points out how insane and archaic it is that anyone calls themselves Miss or Mrs any more. "At no point should my marital status have any impact upon how you treat me, therefore you have no need to know it." I've been trying to explain the logic of this one most of my life, but people still seem to assume that Mrs is such a badge of honour that you'd only call yourself Ms if you're hiding a shameful single status, or a messy divorce.
  • She also takes on the accompanying ridiculousness of women still taking men's names in marriage, pondering if those who do really "hate themselves, their families and their identities... to want to destroy their identity and leave their name behind." I like the way she dispenses with the nauseating notion that one takes their husband's name to prove how much one loves him (so by that token, a husband doesn't love his wife, because he makes no change for her? Hmmm). She concludes "It's not that I don't love my husband enough to take his name, it's that I love myself enough not to." Quite right. Since when did love become synonymous with surrendering who you are?
  • The spot-on identification of how the media struggles to deal with any woman who doesn't immediately live into a stereotype - "they forget that there is a category of people...who quite like sex...without being a sex fiend, without corrupting innocents or spreading disease, without being a prostitute, without making up for lack of self-worth and without trying to get a council flat or claim benefits". It's certainly a truth that the tabloids and their cousins The Express and The Mail seem keen to forget.
  • The point that any attempt by the beauty industry to portray 'real women' in adverts is usually patronising and still amounts to the same thing - trying to get us to buy a moisturiser. Dove's Campaign For Real Beauty is a case in point - however many size 16 bodies or freckled faces it uses, it's still asking women to improve themselves via use of a product; there's no implication that anyone is fine as they are. "If Dove were really serious about raising self-esteem then it would be focusing on internal beauty such as acts of tolerance, kindness and understanding." Damn straight.

What I Disliked/Disagreed With
  • The insistence on watering down feminism until there's very little left to identify it by. Why are we so afraid of scaring the next generation of young women off feminism that we end up blanding out the definition of feminism til it means absolutely nothing? Levenson's insistence that 'noughtie girl feminism has room for you all', even if you spend your time bleating 'I'm not a feminist but...' reeks of pandering to the lowest common denominator. When is someone going to stand up and point out that not every 'choice' is a feminist one? I own chinchillas, does that mean chinchilla-owning is an act of girl power? Please. This lazy, relativist idea that 'you can do what you want as long as it's not hurting anyone' fails to appreciate that no 'choice' occurs within a vacuum, and many so-called choices contribute to, or are part of, a culture that hates women. Feminists should not feel intimidated from standing up and saying so - I'm fed up with people trying to make the movement appear glossy and attractive by saying 'anything goes'. Not on my watch it doesn't, sista! That doesn't mean I'm interested in, or about to judge you for, what you get up to in the bedroom, whether you've had an abortion, or how many men you've slept with. But when you start standing up and telling me you're getting totally healthy nasal cartiledge sheared off your face 'entirely out of choice', I'm gonna have a few words to say.
  • The same goes for the cringeworthy choice of female icons. Why anyone continues to pay attention to a clearly mentally ill woman who has reduced her body to that of a 12 year-old boy (albeit one with two fake breasts stuck to the front of it) is beyond me, but Victoria Beckham still manages to be held up as a style icon. I can deal with that, the fashion world being irretrievably twisted and misogynist as it is, but a feminist icon? Excuse me while I wipe the Um Bongo off my wall. Yet Levenson goes as far to say that women who dislike Victoria Beckham for being a disgrace to women 'are misogynists in feminist clothing'. Well, she may have a point insofar as a disproportionate amount of hatred seems to be directed at her for having married a famous footballer - when her husband was rumoured to have had an affair, a depressing amount of women clamoured to blame her for not having supported his career enough. I personally don't care about her marriage, family, singing ability or lack thereof, but I do bridle at someone who has no career except for flaunting the latest designer monstrosity over her jutting collarbones being heralded as a feminist icon. So she made a lot of money from being in a pop group? I'm sure the Monkees did too, but I've never seen them being held up as icons for men to emulate. The message 'Posh Spice' seems to send out is, you can never be too rich or too thin, it's important to get a big ring on your finger, get wed and take your husband's name, oh, and all that matters is what you wear and how much you pout. I don't think I'm a misogynist for not wanting such a person to be associated with the feminist movement.
  • The rape jokes. Arrrgh. Levenson attempts to interject some level-headedness into a deeply emotive subject, but unfortunately she fails because of her inability to see the link between a culture where we laugh about rape, and a culture where we let rapists off left right and centre. She tells several jokes about rape and emphasises how hearing them from men made her feel 'more comfortable, not less', because it meant breaking the taboo that exists between men and women. Hmmm. I don't know what kind of men Levenson mixes with, but if I was alone with any man who began joking about rape, I'd hear some pretty loud alarm bells in my head. She does at least acknowledge that she's in a minority, and points out that most of her women friends failed to see the humour in the jokes - she also describes a night at a comedy club where the audience booed a rape joke - heartening to hear. However, what I can't believe is her failure to make the link. She points out that (of course) "Rape isn't funny, [right. so why joke about it?] but it's not the jokes about it that are the problem. The problem is our failure as a society to deal with rapists - that's the least funny thing of all." She also highlights the terrifying statistics about the rape conviction rate in this country, and the fact "thirty percent of people think a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk." Yet Levenson sees no correlation between joking about rape, and a society that doesn't take rape seriously. I wonder what she thinks about racist and homophobic jokes? Does she see them as all just good fun, and in no way contributory to a bigoted and hateful society? I'll laugh at a rape joke when rape is such a distant memory in society that it's ridiculous to even imagine that such a thing went on. Til then, please stop claiming that laughing at rape jokes or telling them is in any way a feminist act.
  • The hair issue. Like many issues in this book, Levenson really fails to go deeper when considering why women feel pressured to remove body hair. She makes a good start by saying "I am saddened that women have to spend so much time, money and effort removing their body hair". Yep, you and a few million other of us. Yet she ends the section in a complete cop-out, claiming she doesn't have the guts to let her body hair grow because 'even if I were comfortable with it, society wouldn't be." Riiight. Um, someone remind me what feminism is about again? Is it about making sure that society is 'comfortable' with our every action? About altering our actions, appearances and bodies to fit in with whatever is dictated to be 'acceptable'? Or is it about saying, screw those who try to make us conform to one narrow stereotype, and spend ridiculous amounts of time and money doing so, and look however you damn please? By this point in the book, I'm seriously questioning on what grounds Levenson can claim to have anything resembling a feminist agenda - here she just seems to be saying, shave your pits, pipe down, and get in line with what society wants.
  • In the section on housework, Levenson reflects how housework is still seen as women's domain, as evidenced by the wealth of 'women-friendly' cleaning products on the market, then points out, "I tell you what would be women friendly cleaning - men bloody doing some of it." Yup, think we've all got our heads round that idea. Then she admits that, when she lived with a female friend, she allowed her friend to clean the loo for the whole four years they lived together, and that when she lived alone, she didn't do it herself for two and a half years. Um, when did living like a pig become a feminist act? When did leaving the cleaning for other women to do become an emancipatory gesture? Either make your man go halves on all cleaning, or show him the door - it's not that hard. I can't see what grounds Levenson has for bitching about men not pulling their weight when she admits to being so lazy and spoilt herself.
  • The over-riding problem with the book though, is not just the various attempts to paint acts that are either anti-feminist or irrelevant to feminism as great strides for equality, although these come thick and fast. I think it's more the attempt to shoe-horn huge feminist issues such as rape, porn, work, childcare etc into tiny bite-size sections that don't even begin to scratch the surfaces of these vast topics. Levenson's book seems devoid of any real analysis or sociological examination of why we find ourselves in such a confused state, and instead falls prey to the media's favourite trick of portraying any act, from stripping to getting a nose job, as somehow promoting girl power. A wasted opportunity for a book on 'Noughties' feminism - for a more realistic take, try Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman instead.

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