Mainstream feminism is tepid and cowardly: Work, sex, race, "having it all" and true liberation

We're told we can "have it all" -- as long as that means marriage, babies, a finance job, shoes and exhaustion

Published September 14, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in "30 Rock"   (NBC/Ali Goldstein)
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in "30 Rock" (NBC/Ali Goldstein)

Excerpted from "Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution"

Why does mainstream feminism remain so tepid and cowardly?

The notion that feminism matters and has much work to do is no longer a minority opinion. After decades of tentative acquiescence, women and girls and their allies across the world have begun to speak out to demand a better deal, not just in law but in practice. They have begun to challenge rape culture, slut-shaming, sexual violence. They have begun to fight for reproductive injustice and against the systemic poverty that has always fallen heaviest on women and particularly upon mothers. As finance capitalism faltered following the near-collapse of the global stock markets in 2008, the notion that one day all women would be able to make empowering choices within a market that respected their goals and autonomy was exposed as a twenty-year-old fairy tale.

The feminism that has mattered to the media and made magazine headlines in recent years has been the feminism most useful to heterosexual, high-earning middle- and upper-middle-class white women. Public ‘career feminists’ have been more concerned with getting more women into ‘boardrooms’, when the problem is that there are altogether too many boardrooms, and none of them are on fire.

There was an understanding that gender liberation, like wealth, would somehow ‘trickle down’. The flaw in this plan, of course, was that it was arrant bollocks. Feminism, like wealth, does not trickle down, and while a small number of extremely privileged women worry about the glass ceiling, the cellar is filling up with water, and millions of women and girls and their children are crammed in there, looking up as the flood creeps around their ankles, closes around their knees, inches up to their necks.

Just when it should be most radical, ‘public feminism’ has become increasingly concerned with a species of thin-lipped censoriousness that posits sex, rather than sexism, as the real problem. The feminist campaigns that attract the most attention and funding are those concerned with stamping out pornography, ending prostitution and preventing the sale of suggestive T-shirts.

This is a discourse that treats women as victims not just of our admittedly hugely fucked-up erotic culture, but of sex itself, without properly understanding the nature of commercial sexuality or of objectification. Sexism is apparently not the problem: the problem is sex, the nature of it, the amount of it that’s being had away from moralising eyes, sometimes for money.

We were lied to. The women of my generation were told that we could ‘have it all’, as long as ‘it all’ was marriage, babies and a career in finance, a cupboard full of beautiful shoes and terminal exhaustion – and even that is only an option if we’re rich, white, straight and well behaved. These perfect lives would necessarily rely on an army of nannies and care-workers, and nobody has yet bothered to ask whether they can have it all.

We can have everything we want as long as what we want is a life spent searching for exhausting work that doesn’t pay enough, shopping for things we don’t need and sticking to a set of social and sexual rules that turn out, once you plough through the layers of trash and adverts, to be as rigid as ever.

As for young men, they were told they lived in a brave new world of economic and sexual opportunity, and if they felt angry or afraid, if they felt constrained or bewildered by contradictory expectations, by the pressure to act masculine, make money, demonstrate dominance and fuck a lot of pretty women while remaining a decent human being, then their distress was the fault of women and minorities. It was these grasping women, these homosexuals and people of colour who had taken away the power and satisfaction that was once their birthright as men. We were taught, all of us, that if we were dissatisfied, it was our fault, or the fault of those closest to us. We were built wrong, somehow. We had failed to adjust. If we showed any sort of distress, we probably needed to be medicated or incarcerated, depending on our social status. There are supposed to be no structural problems, just individual maladaption.

The world has changed for women and queers as much as it possibly could without upsetting the underlying structure of society, which is still sexist, homophobic and misogynist, because it relies for its continued existence on sexual control, on social inequality and on the unpaid labour of women and girls. Further change will require more ambition than we have hitherto been permitted. Further change will require us to speak what is unspoken, to refuse to accept the world as it is. It will require us to ask big, challenging questions about the nature of work and love, sex and politics, and to be prepared for the answers to be different from what we had expected. That is what this book attempts to do.

I am twenty-seven years old; I do not know all the answers. But I think I know some of the questions, and it is questions that interest me more.

Asking questions is the authority of the young, and it’s the first thing girls are told not to do. Don’t put your hand up in class, or the boys will shout you down. Don’t talk back to your teachers, to your parents, to the police. Asking questions is dangerous.

For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever. It can’t be undone. Women will not return to sexual and political subjection without a fight to the death. But some people are still unaccountably angry that that sweeping social change was ever thought of, and have hung screaming on to our ankles every step of the long, slow trudge to gender equality. We are not there yet.

Right now a counter-revolution is under way against many of the gains that women have won, at great cost, over centuries of backlash and violence and ridicule. The counter-revolution is a social one, an economic one and a sexual one. This is a new culture war, a sexual counter-revolution. It is much bigger than the tactical ‘war on women’ that was briefly reported in the United States in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2012, as Republican lawmakers lost their collective wits in a moral meltdown over rape, contraception and abortion. That this sexual counter-revolution will never fully succeed makes it no less likely to ruin lives and destroy progress, nor does it dent the overwhelming message of those who seek to restrict women’s socio-sexual choices in the twenty-first century. The message is: thus far, and no further.

Feminism is for everyone

Every few months, it seems, the media rediscovers feminism and decides it’s a trendy new way to sell books and magazines, as long as it doesn’t scare people by posing any actual threat to their way of life. The sort of feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould. That sort of feminism does not interest me. Let others write it. Let others construct an unchallenging feminism that speaks only to the smallest common denominator. The young women of today know far better than their slightly older sisters who came of age in the listless 1990s how much work is still to be done, and how unglamorous much of it is. They know how bloody important it is to talk about power, and class, and work, and love, race and poverty and gender identity.

This book is the start of one such conversation, and if that conversation included only women with absolutely similar backgrounds to my own it would not be worth having. At the same time, I’m aware that I can’t know everything. The fact that I was born white and middle class in an English-speaking country and form relationships mostly although not exclusively with men inevitably affects how I think, how I write, and how I live my life. I am not writing as Everygirl, because there’s no such thing.

Too many feminist writers attempting the ‘book as bombshell’ approach to a theory of gender and power begin with the disclaimer that they cannot possibly say anything about women who are not white, or straight, or rich, or cissexual, or mothers, or employed as full-time writers in London or New York City. That’s their experience, and they can’t speak for anyone else, which means they don’t have to bother talking to anyone else or reading what anybody else has written, unless those writers are straight, white, wealthy, married professionals, too.

Hey, girls, we’re all the same in the end, aren’t we?

The idea that there is any such thing as Everygirl, a ‘typical’ woman who can speak to and for every other person on the planet in possession of a vagina, is one of the major sexist fairy tales of our time. Patriarchy tends to see all women as alike; it would prefer that we were all interchangeable rich, pretty, white, baby-making straight girls whose problems  revolve around how to give the best blow jobs and where to buy diet pills. No man would ever be expected to write a book speaking to and for all men everywhere just because he happens to have a cock. The original feminist statement that the personal is political has been undermined by the insistence, in every media industry still run and owned by powerful men, that all women’s politics be reduced to the purely personal.

Whoever we are, our understanding of gender, politics and feminism is going to be conditioned by our experience of love and sex, especially if we are straight. When we speak of fighting sexism, whether we know it or not, we’re bringing our broken hearts to the table, we’re bringing our wounded pride to the table, all those stomach-twisting sexual rejections, our frustration, our loneliness and longing, the memory of betrayal, the pain of our childhoods. We’re also bringing the anxious heat of our desire, our passion for our friends and partners and children, every time a lover has laid a hand softly over a part of your soul you didn’t know was stinging and soothed it. All of that at once, and more, and more, because gender politics are personal as well as political, but that doesn’t mean the political has to collapse into the personal.

Let’s not talk about boys and girls like that’s a thing

Women. Men. Boys and girls. The words don’t change but the resonance does, and what it means to call yourself one of those things in the twenty-first century is something very different from what it meant in the last century and what it will mean in the next. Being a woman, or being a man, requires effort, attention, the suppression of some parts of your personality and the exaggeration of others. When Simone de Beauvoir said that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ she was bang on, but I prefer Bette Davis in the film All About Eve, reminding us that ‘That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not – being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted.’

Gender identity is work, performance work, a job we got signed up to involuntarily from the day someone held us up to the light and described our nether regions to our gasping mothers. Women, in particular, must perform femininity as part of our work if we want to be paid, or protected, or to retain whatever dignity and standing we’ve managed to rip from the rough surface of the society we’re stuck in. Let’s be clear: when I talk about ‘being a woman’ or ‘being a man’, I’m not talking about biological sex, but social role. From birth and through childhood human beings are segregated by sex and made suspicious of one another: compliance with norms of masculinity and femininity, from how to dress and who to kiss to what team sports you’re supposed to follow, is enforced, often with physical violence, and those who cannot or will not fit in have to work it out alone.

Not everyone identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth. A significant minority of human beings are trans-sexual, transgender, genderqueer or intersex, and their experience of what gender means has traditionally been either excluded from mainstream feminist discussion or actively attacked. Not everyone, moreover, identifies strongly as a man or a woman, and not all of those who do feel a particular compulsion to dress or behave in a certain way in order to be tolerated, respected, rewarded at home and promoted and protected in public.

There is still something, though, that puts those of us who were born or became women in a special predicament. And there is something about that predicament that informs the totality of gender oppression. It is important that everyone understands how sexism affects women and thereby impacts on all human beings. Women are subject to stricter rules of behaviour: how to act, what to say, what to want. What to wear, what to eat, where to shop, how to behave at work, when not to text him back, when to fuck, how to fuck, what colour to put in your hair when he leaves you. If you took the adverts out of what the mainstream media still thinks of as its ‘women’s content’, lists of instructions is almost all there would be left. It is hard to be a man, in this world, and it is harder still to be a woman, to be of the class that is meant to bear all the violence and trauma that society inflicts on men and then to bear the fallout of men’s trauma, too, smoothing their brows, sucking their dicks, suffering their gendered violence with the gentle subservience in which we are trained from birth.

Gender is a straitjacket for the human soul. Gender works us all over, makes enemies of the people we’re supposed to love, and it works women over the most. We are the ones for whom biology is not just destiny: it is catastrophe.

* * *

We still aren’t happy, not women, not men, and some people will tell you that’s because of feminism, and some will say that it’s in spite of feminism. I’d argue that it’s because the fight against capitalist patriarchy has barely begun, but what we know for sure is that there’s something about gender roles, man and woman, boy and girl, that makes people desperately unhappy. We know this because gender is still the main language we use to discuss existential crises.

Women are more depressed than men, more anxious than men, use twice as much psychiatric medication and are three times as likely as men to attempt suicide. Men, however, are twice as likely to succeed in the attempt. Men’s emotional and psychological trauma is more likely to be untreated, to be borne in silence and nursed in private until a sudden snapping point is reached where the heart can take no more and you turn on yourself violently, finally, with a rope, with a knife, with your father’s gun. Most of the cultural narrative around mental health right now revolves around gender, with scientists and social theorists trying to work out whether it’s men or women who are more distressed, and whose fault that might be. Precisely who is more fucked up, boys or girls, has never been conclusively decided, but the fact that we insist on trying to work it out reveals a truth: there is something about gender right now that is deeply troubling, on an intimate level that is rarely discussed. There is something about the experience of being a woman or being a man, or of trying to be a woman or trying to be a man in the twenty-first century that many people find profoundly distressing in a way that they find difficult to speak about even in those few spaces where they are allowed to.

Have we upset the natural order of things?

You make me feel like an unnatural woman

Wherever there is anxiety to stop the world from changing too much or changing at all, we still find ourselves told that such-and-such a change is ‘unnatural’. Expecting real equality for women in the workplace is ‘unnatural’ – nature wants women to clock out of public life when and if they have kids, and if they don’t want to have kids, they must be unnatural. Women who are ambitious and independent are unnatural. Women who actively express sexual desire are unnatural. Women refusing to make themselves pretty and pleasing for men are unnatural. Women who demand respect and security while not being beautiful and young are unnatural. Abortion is unnatural. Contraception is unnatural. Pleasure for its own sake is unnatural.

Unnatural, in short, covers a lot of the fun stuff.

But rape, though, rape is natural. Male violence against women is natural. Homophobia is natural. Discrimination against queer women, poor women, black women, fat women, ugly women, trans women and feminine men is natural. Poverty is natural, especially when the poor are mothers with young children and no men around. That’s just the way the world works. Death in childbirth is natural. Making women pay a higher social price for sexual pleasure is natural. Sexual double standards are natural; women have been less free, less powerful and more exploited than men for centuries, and maybe there’s been a little bit of progress, but we really shouldn’t ask for any more. Asking for more is unnatural. Bitches ought to know their place.

The question, of course, is: why the fuck would anyone want to be natural?

For fifty years, patriarchy has been telling women to get back to the kitchen, first in genuine outrage, and then with the type of ironic crypto-sexism that is supposed to be amusing: get back in there and make us a sandwich, dear. Those who are so eager for women and girls to go back to the kitchen might think again about just what it is we might be up to in there. You can plan a lot of damage from a kitchen. It’s also where the knives are kept.

The truth is that there is nothing ‘natural’ about what it means to be a man or a woman today. Gender identity is performed, and it is performed for profit, whether social, financial or personal. That performance is an adaptive strategy for dealing with overwhelmingly hostile territory. Now we need to adapt again. And that’s what feminism is: adaptation. Evolution.

Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.

For example. A question about whether men and women should be paid equally for equal work leads to another about what equal work really means when most domestic and caring jobs are still done by women for free, often on top of full-time employment. The answers to that lead to a whole new set of questions about what work should be paid, and what is simply a part of love and duty, and then you start questioning the nature of love itself, and that’s when it really starts to get uncomfortable.

The confinement of women to the home has never just been a middle-class experience. However, some of the earliest Second-Wave feminism, starting with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, spoke chiefly of the plight of the suburban wife and mother, her frustration and neurosis, her longing to escape her endless rotation of dishes and dinner-dates and salon gossip to the male world of work and power from which she was excluded. That pain – the torment of the middle-class housewife longing for an office job – has been allowed to define the popular understanding of what feminism is for, and what women really want, for two generations. The fact that outside white suburbia women have always had to work for money does not factor into this convenient fiction. The fantasy that all women really need in order to be equal and contented is to be permitted to work for pay, while continuing to perform their duties in the home – an exhausting schedule of self-negation that we now speak of as ‘having it all’. ‘Having it all’ now means having a career, kids, a husband, a decent blow-dry – and that’s it.

Work itself has been repurposed as women’s liberation. However unsatisfying and badly paid, if you’ve got a job, you’re a free bitch, baby. Anyone who has actually done a day’s work knows that this is a cyclopean lie. Nonetheless, women’s liberation has been redefined as absolute conformity to contemporary standards of femininity, at best a conformity that requires endless work, constant disappointment, a conformity that is no sure route to health and happiness even for those who have the means to pursue it. Modern do-it-all superwomen are so knackered and seething that they have started baking stacks of silly little biscuits and flouncing about in retro 1950s-print dresses as if doing so might bring back the days when you still had to do the shopping, the cooking and the squeezing out of babies but if you were very lucky and very pretty you might be able to persuade a man to cover the finances, because the further away from it some of us get the better that option is starting to look.

The past is a different country: people are always laying claim to it in the name of one ideology or another, with no regard for the people that actually live there. For women and girls in the West, recent history has been colonised by the notion that previous generations of females were not free chiefly because they could not work for a wage. In the modern fantasy of the 1950s, women were confined to the home, to the kitchen sink and the picket fence and the husband and kids. For a great many exhausted modern women, this gilded fairy-tale cage is probably rather appealing: spending your days fussing around the house and watching your kids grow up is hardly less dignified than trekking daily to an office job that pays you less than the cost of a two-room flat. If all feminism won for us is the right to work, you could be forgiven for feeling that maybe gender liberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that maybe the women who plumped for the handsome prince and housewifery had the right idea all along.

Femininity as it is currently conceived is entrepreneurial, and it is competitive: hack social theorists like Catherine Hakim speak without irony of women’s ‘erotic capital’, in a manner which is only repulsive because it makes explicit what is so often said out of the corners of the mouths of parents and teachers and girlfriends: your femininity is a brand, your eroticism your best money in the bank, to be held and cashed in when it is of most value. Your\ very gender identity, one of the most intimate parts of what makes you yourself, is entirely for sale, or should be. This is one of the reasons why women, and particularly young women, have adapted particularly well to the way in which social media and the capitalisation of the social realm requires everyone to apply the logic of branding to our own lives in order to gain followers. We have always been encouraged to understand femininity as a form of branding, albeit one burnt into our flesh at birth.

Work, beauty and romance, then marriage, mortgage and kids: that definition of total freedom has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if you want something else? Is that still allowed?

Excerpted from "Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution" by Laurie Penny. Published by Bloomsbury. Copyright 2014 by Laurie Penny. Excerpted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Laurie Penny

MORE FROM Laurie Penny

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Capitalism Editor's Picks Excerpts Feminism Having It All Laurie Penny Love And Sex Reproductive Rights