Although, growing up, it was a word I was aware of, it wasn’t one I used. Nobody else I knew used it either, except in a broadly technical sense, and even then, very occasionally. Perhaps standards have changed, and times certainly have, but I hear it everywhere I go these days. There’s no escaping it. Every newspaper, every magazine, blog and publication is f- this and f- that: the sheer saturation is overwhelming. I’m starting to wonder if people have nothing else on their minds. I’m talking, of course, about feminism.
Until about a week and a half ago, I had a pretty solid grasp of feminist polemic. To auto-generate your own blog piece, just grab any rant from the Daily Mail on immigration, CTRL+H the words “black people” with “men” and then top-and-tail it with some patronising assumptions about how billions of people are magically silenced and only able to communicate via white middle-class over-educated underachievers. You don’t need to confine it to stuff about women, either – just lump in anything that white-middle-class-guilt-ridden-lefties are angry about and you’re good to go.
Then something very strange started happening: the general shrieking cacophony of the popular press started to make sense. It’s not that my own opinions have changed, so much as everyone else has miraculously stopped being absurd. It all started at the Guardian.
Deborah Orr’s refreshingly even opinion-piece about the “Slutwalk” marches last Thursday raised eyebrows, even among Guardian regulars.
“The SlutWalkers say: “Stop telling me – Don’t get raped. Tell Men – Don’t rape.” I’m sorry, but that’s facile. Rape is a crime, with a minimum five-year sentencing guideline. That’s one of the ways in which men are “told” not to rape.”
Orr considers both sides of the debate – the ways in which the clothes we wear signal our intentions, or maybe signal intentions that we don’t mean to give, while simultaneously condemning any suggestion that a victim was “asking for it” (“even linguistically, that’s an absolute non sequitur”).
“Excellent article on a very sensitive issue”, says one commenter. “Good thoughtful stuff” says another. “Not very often we get well balanced and properly argued essays on this subject, but that’s what we have here”, and even “a balanced and sensible article on CIF. Whatever next !!!!”
Meanwhile, over at The Times, an opinion piece published two days later – a rarity, since the f-word only features there about once a year – compared the lives of women in the 1970s to our lives now, and what further changes need to be made to make our lives more comfortable. Again, it eschewed the idea that it was all some grand conspiracy designed to oppress women (and other “minorities”), and focussed instead on the practical trials of modern living. The responses, particularly, were thought-provoking.
One responder notes that men are increasingly keen to take an equal share in childcare arrangements, but “the UK’s toxic combination of very long working hours and low or non-existent salary replacement rates for paternity and parental leave make further engagement by men very difficult.”
In response to an unrelated article on the same letters page, someone remarks, “I am dismayed how women and girls seem to have become either passive spectators in their own lives or riddled with angst over their appearance, their work/life balance or their children’s performance, as if their own lives are defined by this. Has any woman ever been remembered for these things?”
Not to be outdone, Deborah Orr bounced back with a further piece on 15 June, this time addressing why women who have benefitted from feminism’s gains refuse to identify as “feminist” – and it’s not just a fear of dungarees.
“The very fact that some feminists are so willing to accept that women don’t want the label for such superficial reasons, rather than crediting women with more profound intellectual discomfort, is an indication that even feminist attitudes can sometimes be dismissive of women and their legitimate concerns.”
Again, the article was popular with readers, inviting feedback such as “that was very thoughtful and well balanced” and “another fine well balanced article” – though admittedly there was more debate as to the individual issues raised, such as how much feminism achieved in the 20th century (and how much changed out of simple circumstance). Plus, as one commenter put it: “We have to affix a label to every damn thing these days. I don’t want a label. I am a human being.”
Even that bastion of middle-class-leftie screeching, The Independent – which usually sounds like that hysterical “WILL NOBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN???” woman from The Simpsons – toned down its usual bats*** insanity for two recent articles. Sarah Sands, writing last Sunday, tackled the old lioness herself – Germaine Greer – and some of her more cringe-worthy suppositions:
“The way in which we respond to Germaine Greer gives our age away. Those of us who remember Greer in her prime of influence respect her as an old warrior. My daughter’s generation regard her as a mysterious relic. Her analysis of the female plight makes no sense. Young women can kick ass if they need to, but most of the time their relationships with men have never been easier. Female oppression feels as distant as slavery.”
The article carried on quite sensibly until the final paragraph, when it lost it altogether:
“And yet we dismiss Greer at our peril. My generation of women, who came after Greer, were like John Major to her Mrs Thatcher. We were technocrats, rather than ideologues. Have women advanced much as a result? The world is still run largely by men for men. I reckon we still need a fearless, offensive Aussie shouting her mouth off. We should hold in reserve her angry proposition: If you can’t join men, then you might as well beat them.”
Luckily Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was on hand with her article the following day on the Slutwalk:
“Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls and the conscience of modern feminism, is also unconvinced: ‘[This protest] is still defining women in terms of their sexuality – this idea that what we’re saying is that we’re proud to be sluts.'”
Although it’s less even-handed than Deborah Orr’s Guardian piece, it is at least interesting and thought-provoking and not completely daft. I’m not particularly interested in that particular subject – it was really the way it was covered in the media that I find fascinating, since it’s controversial and contentious and would normally be the breeding ground for nonsensical babble on all sides.
Perhaps the proliferation of feminist articles in the “quality” dailies lately points to a wider picture in which we’re finally sick of the culture in which everyone (male and female) is judged on their superficial appearance. Regardless of my general avoidance of feminist rhetoric, I was always appalled by those American Apparel ads and degrading rap videos and the general media messages that tell kids that their whole value as human beings is wound up in how much useless stuff they own and how sexually available they are. That’s not a “woman’s issue” but an “everyone issue”. Call it what you want. Use the f-word if you want – just as long as everyone’s as sensible as Deborah Orr.
Maybe what’s really happening is that those issues are being reclaimed from the fringes of the hard left and brought to the middle ground where more people are paying attention. If they carry on like this, I’m all ears.