Feminism: Who Needs It?

Anyone who is out as a feminist will probably have had some puzzled reactions along the lines of:

  • “But don’t we have equality now?”
  •  “I think feminism’s gone too far. It’s the men who are oppressed.”
  • “Why don’t you like men?”
  •  “This country is pretty much OK, it’s just in the Third World where women don’t have rights.”
  • “I don’t feel like being a woman has ever held me back.”

Sexism is so much a part of our society, that we take it for granted, accept it as being natural or don’t even notice it when it happens. If you’re not convinced, let me explain.

If you know a woman who’s been raped…

If you know a woman who feels ugly, and insecure about her body…

If you know a woman who does ALL the housework in her house…

If you know a woman who stays in a bad relationship because she’ll feel like a failure if she’s single…

If you know a woman who wanted to be a plumber, but the careers advisor told her to be a hairdresser…

If you know a woman who’s in an abusive relationship (and 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence at some point in their life, so if you don’t think you know anyone then trust me, you do)…

If you know a woman who was mysteriously made redundant after her employer found out she was pregnant…

If you know a woman who was sexually abused as a child…

If you know a woman who hates that her boyfriend looks at Page 3 but can’t say anything to him about it…

If you know a woman who has to keep quiet about the number of people she’s slept with so she won’t get labelled a slag…

If you know a woman who has to pretend she has more sexual experience than she has so she won’t get labelled a frigid bitch…

If you know a woman who can’t get back into work after taking time out to have kids because she can’t find an employer willing to be flexible…

If you know a woman whose only sex education came from watching porn because no one ever had an open conversation with her about sex and relationships…

If you know a woman who’s always on a diet but can never quite get thin enough…

If you know a woman who’s tried to speak out against something she was unhappy with and been ignored and patronised because ‘she’s obviously just got PMT’…

If you know a woman who doesn’t get the respect and the pay she deserves because she works in a traditionally female area like childcare or retail which is undervalued by our society…

If you know a woman who used to get bullied at school for being too fat, too clever, for wearing glasses, for being a tomboy, for wearing the wrong clothes, for being a slag…

If you know even one of these women, or if you are even one of these women, then you know why we still need feminism.


Feminism and advertising discussion

On Wednesday we had our monthly discussion group, on the topic of feminism and advertising.  I thought it would be interesting to write about a few of the ideas we discussed, so we can carry on the discussion here if we like.  The discussion ranged pretty broadly – from censorship to capitalism (of course) to complicity. [names have all been changed]

We started off by talking about the Leveson Enquiry and the submission by four women’s groups arguing that the enquiry should take into account the effect of media reporting of rape and sexual violence and objectification of women in the media.  While no-one seemed to think that Leveson would actually do this, it was interesting to hear Abigail’s view against censorship, arguing that we need to be able to see these images in order to engage critically with them.  This requires a really good critical education.  On the subject of education, Katherine asked about doing feminist education – there is in fact a group in Manchester who do education workshops on advertising literacy and critique, and it would be great to do this.  The only problem is capacity.  We keep talking about how we’d love to do more education work (we have got some pro-choice schools’ workshops on the diary) but we don’t currently have the resources (and I feel guilty whenever it comes up…).  If we got some funding, maybe… or if anyone wants to start setting this up, go for it!

Now that I’m writing this post I’m realising that I mostly only remember the things that I said.  This is always the case – you say something really brilliant or really embarrassing in a public forum, only to realise later that no-one has remembered what you said, they only remember what they themselves said.  It’s so true.  I don’t really want to give an account of what I said so I’ll have to rely on other people to add things in the comments.  For now, I’ll just highlight some of the more interesting points that came up in discussion.

The idea of creating an explicitly ad-free space – whiting-out ads – was suggested by Emily and we talked about whether white was in fact a ‘neutral’ colour, and Mia argued that subvertising would have more impact than whiting out, because you could then see the ‘conversation’ with the advertisement.  As Caroline mentioned, subvertising is more about having this conversation with other people who see the ad, rather than with the makers of the ad.  She said that seeing a sexist or offensive ad (or even any ad) which has someone’s response to it written or stuck on it was really powerful – it makes you feel like you’re not the only one reacting against it.  It’s a way of getting between people and the image – those in the group who had worked/do work in marketing brought up the point that marketers classify people in really broad, generic categories, and market things so aggressively because they themselves don’t necessarily feel that advertising works – they’re caught up in this same cultural system as well.

(By the way, while I was looking for a link that explained ‘feminist subvertising’ with some examples and maybe some history, I couldn’t find a good one quickly – does someone want to write a post on this?  We have a really good example to start with.  Maybe a how-to?)

I’ve only mentioned a few points from our discussion – there was loads more, but I’m going to finish here and let other people continue in the comments, if you like – maybe people have had further thoughts since Wednesday that you want to share.


I think I’m starting a tradition of posts that mostly consist of links to other blog posts elsewhere. I’ve recently discovered Microaggressions:

This blog seeks to provide a visual representation of the everyday of “microaggressions.” Each event, observation and experience posted is not necessarily particularly striking in and of themselves. Often, they are never meant to hurt – acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.

The thing about microaggressions is that if you aren’t on the receiving end of them, it’s easy not to notice them, even if to others they happen ALL THE TIME. So reading this sort of stuff can be educational and useful. Although, also, extremely depressing.

And in a similarly educational vein, I bring you a sampling of the “Shit People Say… ” meme:

Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls

Shit Straight Girls Say… to Lesbians

Stuff Cis People Say To Trans People

Shit White Girls Say… To Brown (Desi/Indian) Girls

Seriously though, where DO they do cock vajazzle?

One of the most fun things about having your own blog (if you’re a little bit geeky, anyway) is the stats section. There are counters for how many people read your blog each day, how many people share posts on Twitter or Facebook, but best of all is ‘Search Engine Terms’ where you find out what people typed into Google to find your blog. Most of them are pretty much what you’d expect (people searching for ‘Feminist Action Cambridge’, ‘abortion rights’ or ‘feminism and men’) but there are some special gems in there which I wanted to share with you all. Think of it as a very very late Christmas present.

My Top 5 Feminist Action Cambridge blog search terms

5. First off, to whoever searched for “porno and sexy women angirls.” – this blog was DEFINITELY not what you wanted. BUT, it may have been just what you needed… it particularly concerns me that you specified women and girls, this makes me wonder if you were looking for child porn, in other words images of children being raped. Anyway, I hope we managed to raise your consciousness in some way.

4. This is possibly slightly self-promoting, but I hope the people who searched for variations of ‘how to prevent rape’ were reassured by my post that it is not our responsibility as women to prevent rape, and that women who do experience rape are absolutely not to blame in any way no matter what they were doing, saying or wearing and no matter what their relationship with the rapist was or is.

3. “painting of woman with underwear visible” I’ve chosen this one because I’m intrigued by such a specific request. Particularly, why does it have to be a painting? Please come forward, visible-underwear-seeker, you will not be judged, just tell us what you were looking for and why.

2. E-R’s magnificent post on vajazzling has led to some pretty eccentric  search terms, and I’m very taken with ‘where do they do cock vajazzle’, ‘assjazzle’ and ‘who invented vaggazale?’ but feel I have to award second place to good old ‘vajazzle’ as it’s the second most searched-for term that leads people to this blog. Judging by the popularity of all these search terms, it seems glittery genitalia is definitely on the way in. One day unsparkly vaginas like mine will be viewed as disapprovingly as E-R’s hairy pits are today.

1. Finally ladies and gentlemen, first prize goes to someone who is worried about the important things in life. While some of us are fretting about trivia like ending violence against women and girls, defending abortion rights and demanding equal pay, thank goodness there was someone out there with the vision to ask what is perhaps the most urgent question for feminism in the 21st century *drumroll*: “does the rio wax take off all the hair around the cpenis and balls?” Feminists around the world must all drop everything and rush to solve this one immediately. We deserve the truth, sisters.

Mass media, self-publishing, privilege, and social networking websites

When I was a teenager, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the Internet wasn’t a thing yet, I read Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, and it kind of blew my mind.

'Manufacturing Consent' book cover

Manufacturing Consent demonstrated that the mass media is systematically biased in ways that promote the interests of corporate and political elites, not as a result of an overt conspiracy, but as a result of what Herman and Chomsky call “filters”. Read the rest of this entry »

Men who hate women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Few people will have been able to miss the hype around the Stieg Larsson trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.   The books have been made into films in Sweden, and now the US remake of the first film has just been released in cinemas.  In this post I’ll be talking about the the US version of the film, but using this film to talk about the ideas in the book generally.

I’d had several conversations with people before reading the books about how much violence against women they contained, so I’d decided not to read them – my general standpoint is that there’s enough horrific violence in life already without adding gratuitous violence to fiction.  But I have the kind of brain that mops up the printed word – I will automatically read everything in sight, even the cereal box if there’s nothing else – so that’s my excuse for one day picking up the first of the trilogy and starting to read it.

The prose isn’t actually very good, but I was astonished to find that these books are a radical feminist text.  The meta-message of the trilogy, as I see it, is how the state colludes in violence against women.  They also do a convincing job of portraying both the nature and the extent of violence against women – hence the horrific scenes of violence that I had been warned about (one in particular).   These feminist messages were, of course, totally absent from the marketing of both the books and the films, and as The Feminist Gaze points out, the marketing for the recent film gives the usual message of the sexualising the female protagonist, in the protective arms of the strong male protagonist.

This image is, amazingly, the opposite of the message of the film (mostly).  Seeing I don’t want to put any spoilers in, I won’t describe in detail the climactic scene of the film.  But suffice to say it is a perfect gender-reversal of the stereotypical boy-rescues-girl-from-imminent-danger.  I’ve replayed the scene many times in my mind since watching it, just to get used to the feeling of it.  There’s an especial irony in that the male lead is played by Daniel Craig, of James Bond fame – but in this film he is put in the ‘female’ position of vulnerability, fear and silence.  I’ve often thought about how our cinema and TV habituates us to seeing frightened women – our fear is sexualised, even – but here we see this position inhabited by the male protagonist.

All this leads me to talking about the main character, Lisbeth Salander, played brilliantly by Rooney Mara.  There are a lot of things I want to write about her, but I’m going to stick to discussing one in particular: her failure to observe the usual codes of polite human interaction – codes which tend to be exaggerated in their feminine version, such as apologising, putting others first, and generally being other-oriented in social interaction.  It struck me forcibly that she has this in common with the other inspirational feminist heroine of the last year, Sarah Lund in Danish thriller The Killing.

To take Lund first – she who popularised the woolly jumper.  I’ll only talk about Season Two as I haven’t yet seen Season One.  (If anyone has it on DVD I’d love to borrow it).  What I loved about her character was her body language – it is uncompromising and unfeminine.  She stands in strong poses with her feet apart and her weight evenly spread, rather than leaning to one side as women often do in an unconscious posture of submission (look around you both in real life and on tv/films – you’ll see this everywhere).  I had already been thinking about issues of body language and assertiveness following on from the Boastful Women workshop that Feminist Action Cambridge ran in November where I saw what a big change it made for women to adopt different postures.  Now here’s a heroine we can emulate.  As for her personality – she never asks for permission, only rarely apologises, and hardly ever explains herself, often leaving her sidekick Strange muddling along bemused in her wake.  Yes, this could be called rudeness – and I will talk about why this is important below.

But first back to Salander (and they are both called by their surnames; when Salander’s first name is used, it is by one of the abusers in the plot and used in order to sexualise her).  She is not so much socially awkward as downright hostile, oozing distrust for people she meets.  One of the abusers uses this as his ‘excuse’ to abuse her, saying to her, ‘you need to learn to get along with people’ in a striking, brilliantly constructed scene where the viewer experiences an abusive situation with Salander.   This scene is important because it seems to subvert the ideas of the male gaze in cinema that Laura Mulvey wrote about in her seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.  Instead of seeing Salander as the object of both the male gaze and the audience’s gaze, the camera positions her abuser as the object  – an object of horror and disgust – and our experience and our perspective follow hers, until towards the end of the scene where there is a camera shot from above.  This camera move indicates to me Salander dissociating from the scene, an interpretation that is confirmed by the abrupt cut to the end of the scene.

But I’m getting off track and geeking about camera shots.  What I loved about this film was how it made explicit the link between ‘appropriate’ feminine behaviour of being polite and accommodating (of which Salander, similarly to Lund, embodies the opposite); and how this is used by abusers as a tool to aid their sexual exploitation of women.  This theme was crystal clear to me from the US version of the film, more so than the book and the Swedish film (and I’d be interested to hear in the comments if other people thought so too).  The main baddie/abuser spells this out explicitly, saying to Daniel Craig’s character Mikael Blomkvist (in the same gender-twisting scene I described above): ‘Why did you come back inside when you knew something wasn’t right?  All I had to do was offer you a drink.  Is fear of offending stronger than your sense of self-preservation?’.  This is, of course, some egregious victim-blaming, telling Blomkvist that it’s his fault that he is in danger because he didn’t protect himself, rather than the baddie’s fault for being an abuser and murderer.  But then contrast Blomkvist’s ‘feminine’ demeanour of politeness and following all the social rules of behaviour with Salander’s rudeness; at times it even seems like the film is celebrating this quality of hers.  Certainly both the book and both version of the film celebrate her physical and mental toughness – her ability to defend herself when mugged, and the astounding scene where she takes perfect revenge on her abuser.

There’s a lot more I’d like to write about in this film, including the uncompromising portrayal of sexual violence within the family; and the way I walked home after the film with a slightly different feeling, physically, having seen a woman use her body with such confidence and strength – I felt like some of this had rubbed off on me.  Also the tensions or questions that the film brought up around what Salander’s encounter with heterosexuality did to her.  There’s a great post at polytical about the non-monogamy in the film.  Also Feminist Fatale (writing about the Swedish version of the film) brings up an important point: ‘What is really gnawing at me about this film is whether or not it is okay to portray a supposedly feminist character and tell a feminist story through the vein of violence against women”.  I think, on balance,  since violence against women exists in these horrific forms then our feminist versions have to tell stories of how women respond to this.  But I’m not sure.

But I’ll just end with two points about the genesis of the book which I think seal its credentials as a classic feminist text.  First, as many people know, the original Swedish title of the book was Men who hate Women.  Such a pity that this was changed to the anodyne English version The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Secondly, apparently the author, Stieg Larsson, who died in a car crash before either of the films were made, wrote these books to assuage his guilt at doing nothing for a friend of his youth who was raped (and I can’t remember where I heard/read this) .  His partner Eva Gabrielsson insists that ‘Larsson would have… used the buzz around his work to call attention to the central issues of discrimination and violence against women’.  Since Larsson can’t do this, I guess it’s up to us.