Thursday 18 February 2010

Embracing the inner Madonna-whore

Women, directed by Vanessa Engle, beginning on the BBC 8 March 2010

Unveiling plans in support of traditional family values after becoming party leader in 2006, David Cameron was reportedly asked if he was a feminist. ‘I don’t know what it means any more’, he’s said to have replied - ‘though I suspect probably not’ (1). Following recent New Labour plans to stamp out ‘gender inequality’ through premising gender differences (2), it seems it’s not just Dave who got confused. Indeed, a similar conclusion about the rest of society could well be drawn from Vanessa Engle’s new three-part documentary, Women.  Taking a broad but selective sweep of women’s liberation over the last half century the series considers its effects on various female lives. It moves from protests against Miss America in 1968 which gave us the myth of bra-burning, through to campaigns on London’s streets to ban the Playboy bunny today. Women well draws out the ambiguous legacy of feminism.

Planned to begin broadcast in line with the slightly soggy-sounding ‘Women’s Day’ on March 8th (and perhaps this growing roster of canonisations clogging the calendar is part of what seems set to ‘a problem’), the films loosely appraise both post-war second wave feminism with its fight for enduring social and cultural freedoms and the smashing of restrictive traditional identities; and its third wave manifestation from roughly the 1990s onwards commonly taken to either correct or complete these demands. The rationale seems fair enough: no women remain alive to examine the experience of the first wave suffragettes, whose achievement it was to see a woman’s right to vote on par with a man’s in 1928. Indeed, those older heroines seem more often wheeled out to legitimise a flailing political class than to galvanise radical opposition to the status quo, especially given the current elevation of voting to an almost ‘compulsory’ democratic ‘duty’ in supposed deference to those who died fighting, perversely, for freedom of choice. Far from a slick feminism with a pristine set of principles however, this collection of interviews gestures towards a more honestly incoherent, internally disagreeing, dissatisfied, often dynamic though at no point resolved body of ideas surrounding female liberation.

‘Libbers’ begins the series talking to the likes of the (recently deceased) author Marilyn French, Susan Brownmiller and Germaine Greer; we move through a survey of the everyday lives and attitudes of a handful of middle class ‘Mothers’ from the South of England with meal schedules stuck to fridge doors, busy jobs and in one case house husband; and end on the motivations and concerns of a group of present-day ‘Activists’ known as the London Feminist Network as they resuscitate Reclaim the night marches and organise their first conference (this includes a fiendishly over-long sequence on the making of several large bowls of salad). If the subject matter presents an obvious practical difficulty since few - if any - of these women are accountable to a broader body in the sense they need respond to awkward or probing questions on camera, then the problem of drawing out feminism’s often contradictory impulses is made all the harder. Many more critical themes are hinted towards; few are explicitly pursued. 


Feminist author Marilyn French (1929-2009)

Engle uncovers the explosive yet intimate force of the early women’s movement, the sense of closeness and momentum that came from ‘consciousness raising’ where previously private experiences and desires - of frustration, unfulfilled aspiration, even having secret abortions or terrible sex - were shared out aloud amongst groups of women who began meeting regularly to discuss them. There’s an obvious resonance with the group therapy session, and an amusing Robin Morgan admits her British group was more interested in theory than spilling out their sex lives, constantly worrying if they were doing it ‘right’ like their American cousins.

Though what comes through mostly is the sheer hard work of these women, their tenacity, drive and sometime sense of loneliness. As Brownmiller puts it: ‘movements are tough to work in…those who survived had nerves of steel’, commenting presciently that some women became ‘neurotic’ through lack of self-fulfilment, advising that new generations must learn you can’t ‘jump start’ a movement. She captures the in some ways understandable position of many would-be world-changers today: wanting to ‘be radical’ before having figured out about what or how, dedicated to being ‘feminist’ without really knowing what for. Dynamics of private and public just don’t carry the same tensions in the twenty-first century, and neither have women just spent a War filling the shoes of men. There’s a resultant tendency to think of ‘third wave’ campaigns - alongside more mainstream impulses which peddle policies of positive discrimination (which often amounts to the same thing) - as simply clearing up the last of a gender-imbalanced past; where the lack of any underlying, shared, and genuinely positive experience itching to express itself, any concrete aspirational sentiment amongst women as a group, perhaps partly explains why. 

Yet of course even historically the horizons of feminism were narrowed when it came to understanding the barriers to both individuals and the wider society. These 60s women touch on the pressure the movement put on its participants to become lesbians, its dislike of ‘patriarchal’ hierarchy and the difficulty heterosexual members had when it came to navigating relationships with men. The woman as body or sexual being became a site of political contestation. One influential book on the myth of the vaginal orgasm introduced the idea of a more active, demanding and openly sexual woman unabashedly into the mainstream (especially Anne Oakley’s demure refusals to give detail are charming), whilst other texts, like Germane Greer’s much-discussed The Female Eunuch (1970) openly justified calls for both an end to ‘objectification’ and a more liberated female presence in society. As with most struggles of the period this was less about exhibitionism and more often about wanting to play a full part in mainstream society. But more than that, mainstream society was seen as desirable - whilst being an adult was about taking responsibility in way that was, quite sincerely, liberating.

These were, significantly, struggles to shape and participate in modernity: through politics and science, on the production line or in the boardroom, by displaying in art galleries or pushing boundaries in the aeroplane, in academia, to get merry in pubs, love and be loved however much and often as you pleased. Women actively wanted to be in the workplace. These aims weren’t revolutionary and often unabashedly so (many women came to feminism through explicit disenfranchisement with labour movement sexism), but they could have a piercing core. There was, importantly, a canny rejection of a whole array of expectations about how women should be, which have today (more the act of the rejection than the expectation) become part and parcel of cultural discourse. For instance, feminists rejected:

‘The Unbeatable Madonna-Whore Combination. Miss America and Playboy’s centerfold are sisters over the skin. To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy. Deviation of any sort brings, we are told, disaster: “You won’t get a man!!“‘ (3)

This was often followed by a more subversive attempt to challenge to the underlying assumptions of a society that pitted people against one another in a bid to succeed, and put one, man, at the top. Such aims were limited, and perhaps in some ways were always meant to be.

Instead, many from this era argued that all lifestyles should be respected. More than any sort of proto-socialism however, it’s the kernel of today’s identity politics which has taken this ‘all shall have prizes’ mentality to its core that is most recognisable. The inability to understand what it truly meant to chose one way of life over another may have led to an admirably respectful tolerance of different ways of being in the world – even if women chose to tie themselves to the kitchen sink or wrap themselves up in latex and prance provocatively about, but one which ultimately stepped back from a more through-going battle of ideas.

Indeed, it’s this ambiguous legacy, seen most clearly in the superficial tension between choice and moral prescription, especially around the family, which points towards a deeper lack of direction that comes through in the present day – where it seems there’s been a return to more conservative gender roles albeit updated - the ‘yummy mummy’, the WAG, even Michelle Obama is considered a sort of fashion icon. Complaints about ‘ladettes’ letting it hang loose, even imitating the boorish behaviour of blokes, is on the rise; dismay or disgust at big-breasted celebrities and attendant ‘raunch culture’ seems to be gaining ground; stories of women not reaching the glass ceiling due to the prevalence of ‘male bonding’ in the workplace pepper the press; concern over the ‘negative body image’ of young girls has become popular; older women aren’t getting enough time on telly, females have only recently been allowed onto Navy submarines, there aren’t ‘enough’ women in the cabinet – or as Engle gently finds, women of a certain class still tend to shoulder the domestic burden, even when they earn as much as their husbands. Even though we’ve got past the point where we know a porn star can have a PhD, one of the most perplexing moments of the films is the wry little smile given by a number of wives as Engle asks their husbands how much share of the washing they do, whether they clean the bath after getting out, are they a feminist? Is this any different from the working wife who doesn’t know her children’s shoe sizes or think she should have to? Does it matter?

There seems real unease around the issue, most especially as it gets frequently confused with the so-called ills ‘of consumerism’ or the nefarious prescriptions ‘of capitalism’ – which apparently go around forcing us all to smear on lipstick with the proverbial carrot of physical perfection being daggled in front of our noses. Whether or not these modern fears (or more properly, hardly new fears about modernity) are couched in the morally authoritative sounding language of gender equality – and they seem in fact most perplexing when they are – they do reflect a broad-brushed confusion over the place, role and expectations of 21st century women, which reflects an all too familiar uncertainty about how to be an adult, not least a meaningful part of society, today. A more deep-seated moral malaise and sense of stagnancy is afoot.

In fact, the activists of the third film censoriously campaign to get rid of strip clubs, ban lap-dancing and puncture the sex-trade. Yet a profoundly complex moral point about self-respect, opportunity and a long history of social expectation running in a certain direction can all too often come out as a shallowly moralistic expression of opportunistic identity politics. Here comes the transition from the idea of women as actively choosing their own destiny, to women as passive victims of cruel and unfeeling forces. Discussion about the place of women in Islam well draws out the cultural depth of these issues, not least pointing to concern over the historically universalizing aims of feminist ideas concerning equality.

Yet again, the muddle centres around a conflicted attitude towards what’s frequently referred to as ‘appearance’, of how to dress appropriately or of what signals are been given by anything from burkas to bikinis, which is both deceptively simple and often about anything but. One ‘activist’ is dead set against pictures of skinny celebrities that exemplify conventional notions of ‘femininity’, yet as Engles points out has finely polished nails and sports girly dresses. Another had severe eating problems whilst trying to be the right shape for a ballerina. A third, mother, watched on whilst the police refused to believe her gang-raped young daughter’s friend. A fourth notes that there’s so much she wants to do in life, but she frequently gets distracted and down comparing how she looks to other girls. They quote figures of rape and domestic violence; get frustrated with men looking at pornography on the tube. Engle intimates this is all slightly neurotic and few other girls seem to care, quizzes their puzzled parents who mostly put it down to ‘a phase’.

A palpable uncertainty about how, and who, to be socially, a feeling of having been let down by various kinds of a authority, an over-emphasis on the negative coupled with a nearly crippling sensitivity when it comes bashing up against others in everyday life - these are not one-off experiences, and far too easily blamed on a self-obsessed younger generation. The often resultant draw towards ‘post-ironic’ modes of engagement or broadly ‘postmodern’ interpretations of sex and gender can help to shed light on many social constructions of both,  but at root can seem unfulfilling or somehow inadequate for those who try to develop them. What seems to happen is a slip into a far more static picture, where a deep disenfranchisement about society can exist alongside a giddy idealism about how things should be.

Whilst it seems daft to make contemporary feminism reside in being chubby, donning khaki and shaving heads, it can seem equally disingenuous to suggest women choose to wear lashings of make up, squeeze into boob-hugging sweaters and totter in tiny skirts for naught. Such choices seem attractive to many women – and men. No doubt there is something in the often-aired thought that women generally care, worry, and spend more time and money on, their appearance than the opposite sex. Yet that’s just generally called ‘getting with the programme’, growing up, fitting in. Whilst complaints of ‘patriarchal oppression’ and the unstoppable salivating of men may ring as hollow as the counter that all women are competitive bitches trying to sleep with each other’s boyfriends, the concern that contemporary culture cares too much about appearance, regardless of sex or gender, at the cost of talent, real achievement and most certainly true connection genuinely touches a nerve. Perhaps there is more to this woman issue than meets the eye.


(1) Viv Groskop, ‘Observations on Cameron’, New Statesman, 20 March 2006
http://www.newstatesman.com/200603200012
(2) Ian Dury, ‘It’s Official: women ARE more equal than men’, 28th April 2009 Daily Mail
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1173895/Its-official-Women-ARE-equal-men-Harman-shake-gives-preferential-treatment.html
(3) ‘No more Miss America’, from 1968
http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/modern/No-More-Ms-America.html

See a trailer of the documentary on the BBC website, here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/tv/comingup/women/


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