As part of BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s series about men, Beatrix Campbell, Tim Samuels and Laurie Penny debate how the place of men in society has changed.
You can listen to the broadcast here or by clicking the image below:
As part of BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s series about men, Beatrix Campbell, Tim Samuels and Laurie Penny debate how the place of men in society has changed.
You can listen to the broadcast here or by clicking the image below:
My latest piece for The Guardian:
I’m a regular contributor to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s nightly flagship arts and current affairs programme Late Night Live.
Here’s my latest discussion alongside Matthew Parris, The Formidable Mrs Thatcher.
From my book: THE IRON LADIES
Margaret Thatcher’s friends and enemies would say: she’s just like a man! She is the best man among them!
Uniquely in the public mind she belonged to one sex yet could be either. But she was not like a man; she was more than a man: a prime minister, a warrior and (allegedly) a housewife. Men are warriors and prime ministers but they are not housewives.
Part of women’s pleasure in Margaret Thatcher was everything to do with gender and her performance of power. But what did that say about femininity and its changing forms?
Thatcher was given the opportunity to engage with women’s political history, and she spurned it. For that would have involved acknowledging that first of all it was a struggle; a struggle to reach beyond the boundaries of domesticity to embrace power in the public sphere as well as responsibility in the private; and it would have posed the question: what was her own commitment to the political struggles of women in her own time?
All of that was impossible for Thatcher.
She insisted, ‘The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone for ever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.’
Margaret Thatcher invokes only the idea of the housewife, not the lived experience, she does not refer to her work, her isolation, her sacrifice, her other longings.
She made the domestic visible – but she made it the experience of women. But in making it visible she also rendered invisible the housewife also engaged in waged work and the contradictions experienced by the wageless housewife.
State support is reconstituted as an inducement to sloth. Women’s powerlessness is suppressed in her division of society into two classes – powerful state bureaucratic elites and the manipulated masses, including trade union ‘barons’ and ‘bully boys’.
‘We never went on demonstrations or on strike,’ she said.
Thatcher’s politics are patriarchal, but that doesn’t make her a man.
She shows how femininity is a production: femininity is what she wears, masculinity is what she admires.
She puts femininity and power on display. It is not femininity, it is buccaneering masculinity that is evoked in her celebration of Victorian values, earlier prime ministers, merchant venturers, philanthropists… ‘This is a nation built on the success of the merchant venturers. Men who sailed into the unknown to carry our trade and bring back wealth to our people.’
Margaret Thatcher seeks something not given to women: valour.
She borrowed it – during the miners’ strike, the Falklands war, the resistance to détente…
‘I stand before you tonight in my evening gown, my face softly made up, my hair gently waved…the Iron Lady of the Western World! Me? A cold warrior? Well, yes…’
One of her advisers, Patrick Cosgrave, thought that some women who had been Labour voters might have been touched by the women’s Liberation Movement, and might be engaged by an emphasis on Thatcher’s sexual identity. But she ‘turned the scheme down flat’.
Many Conservative women felt disappointed that Thatcher did not empower women in the party. She was the triumph of an older tradition, albeit one that she herself transformed. She did not follow feminine archetypes in the Conservative Party, she preferred the prototypical patriarch: Churchill.
She was a model neither of traditional femininity nor feminism, but something else:
She offered feminine endorsement to patriarchal power and principles.
Barack Obama said that Margaret Thatcher was an iconic role model for our daughters.
Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States was a moment of vindication for black Americans.
His mantra during his election campaign, Yes We Can, could have been their maxim, too. Yes, black America, Yes WE Can!
But the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister offered no such promise. What she believed was Yes I Can.
She didn’t share power with women. She didn’t expand women’s democratic room for manoeuvre. On the contrary, she diminished democracy. She didn’t empower women.
Equality was a word purged from her vocabulary. And feminism, she believed, was ‘poison’. Without it, of course, she would never have become a Parliamentarian, a Prime Minister, or even a voter.
For sure, Thatcher proved that she could perform power like no man: she could be more than any man — but she wrapped a feminine endorsement around a thoroughly patriarchal project.
Her mission was to re-structure the state and society, and she engineered this with surgical elan; Thatcherism tilted the axis of British politics, she made the lore of the market appear to be the language of life itself.
It was — as the great Jamaican scholar-activist Stuart Hall, the pioneering theorist of Thatcherism — described it a project of modernisation: REGRESSIVE MODERNISATION.
It spoke freewheeling free marketeering into one ear, he said, and ‘the voice of respectable, bourgeois, patriarchal man’ in our other ear.
Hear this fast, bracing debate between the lovely Tory MP Margot James and myself.
Ten years ago I wrote this story: the eloquent voices of Nazareth House orphans.
The Catholic Church took no responsibility then for sexual abuse, harm and humiliation of very vulnerable young children in their care.
The Scottish hierarchy is in disgrace: homophobia,and priestly abuse have thrown it into crisis.The children it harmed are still waiting for the Church to confront its own history.
Don’t let anyone think the crisis is just about arch-bigot Cardinal O’Brien.
Since when have so many women have been urged to be so violent? Kick him in the cojones, shins, and knees! Elbow the thorax. Bite the bastard. All sackable offences, and, as it happens, the least likely and, most certainly, the least alluring response to a man sexually harassing a woman.
But we’ve been hearing these tactics being counseled here there and everywhere as the way to deal with a ‘groper’ – aka a man sexually harassing a woman – following a week of really brave women calling powerful men and party leaders to account for institutionalised sexual harassment. That’s among those who admit that sexual harassment is not on.
There are others who don’t think it matters much; its not like real sexual abuse, they say. Often these are people who have not risked their reputations by taking the side of people who have been sexually abused.
Laughing Lord Tony Greaves reckoned that if sexual harassment was a resigning matter then ‘around half the male members of the Lords over the age of 50 would probably not be seen again.’
Lady Shirley Williams, a noble parliamentarian, is not known as a champion of the victims of sexual crime. She told the BBC that her party’s former Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, now under investigation by the Metropolitan police, was ‘a very fine man.’
She ventured that Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children was ‘the bad stuff’ but she did not believe ‘anything that’s been said about our chap is in that category.’ Who said it was? But she then maligned the women who had, after many years of self-protective – and humiliated – silence, spoken out: the women’s allegations against Rennard had been ‘hopelessly exaggerated’.
That’s not what the police think – Scotland Yard is now investigating Rennard. Women have, however, confirmed that they felt emboldened to come forward after the Savile case had changed the nation’s consciousness.
Oxford scholar Allison Smith, who had once hoped to be a Lib Dem candidate, said she had been encouraged by the ‘change in culture’, to go public about Rennard’s alleged harassment.
Williams needs to explain what, exactly, is being exaggerated. Does she think the women who have brought their complaints to the Lib Dem leadership or to the police are themselves exaggerating, lying, or does she think that the problem of sexual harassment as such is an exaggeration? In either case she has some explaining to do.
Explain, Lady Williams, why so many women in your party are prepared to risk their own privacy and perhaps even their careers as Lib Dem politicians to expose serial harassment in the same party culture that also tolerated serious, serial sexual abuse.
The police have investigated the story — interred for decades — of serial sexual abuser Cyril Smith MP, and concluded that he was a serious offender who would, these days, be prosecuted. Smith and Rennard are not, of course, comparable. But they inhabited, and were protected by the same party culture. The behaviour of both was well known in the party.
There is no question about it: the Lib Dems stupidly, smugly, turned their back on feminism; didn’t confront sexism and, inevitably, therefore, accommodated sexually predatory behaviour by men.
What the Lib Dems did not understand is that defining harassment and abuse clarifies what is, and is not, appropriate behavior. Like laws and procedures on drink and driving, seat belts, smoking, hate speak, racist chanting at football matches, hitting children, cultures reach a consensus about public safety and public manners. They are connected.
Loss of confidence in cultural renovation, the mocking of so-called political correctness, which – lest we forget – sponsored the campaign to kick racism out of football, has stalled the recognition that sexism – like racism – sustains abuse, disrespect and bullying.
The response to the Lib Dem women, whose charges have been corroborated, has been, predictably polarized. The most remarkable feature of this debate has been the fortitude of women in politics and the media: Cathy Newman at Channel 4 and Nick Clegg’s former special adviser Bridget Harris explained helpfully that women are even supposed to feel that brushing off the predatory men is ‘the feminist response’. Au contraire, she insists, ‘our silence is not shame. It is self-preservation.’ The problem is ‘the power imbalance’ that makes protest futile and even self-destructive.
These women have been met by a chorus complaining that t’was ever thus; well, its not as bad as real abuse is it; they should not stand for it, brush it off, bash him in the balls.
This inducement to either silence or violence been compounded by some nasty body stuff which compounds the disrespect for women by the language of contempt for the man. In an otherwise creditable critique of sexism in parliament and the press, Allison Pearson lowers the tone by describing Rennard as a ‘slug’.
Rod Liddle – always reliable as a barometer of choleric white man’s intemperance – adds in The Spectator that Rennard is a ‘lardbucket.’
As if harassment by a svelte Fifty Shades of Grey Christian Grey or Brad Pitt would have been not offensive but charming.
All of this, of course, averts our gaze from the people who are the problem – the perpetrators and their cultural comfort zones. It brings pessimism and denial to the possibility that marauding masculinities can be reformed.
The Lib Dems’ disgrace, however, has been society’s gain: we all now know the open secret of sexism in the party and the mass media. And these institutions now know that they’ve got to sort it.
Oh what a mighty calumny Hilary Mantel has caused. Her ravishing, slightly odd, fastidious, eloquent, essay on suits, frocks, fabrics and royal bodies in the London Review of Books would have been a good read. Now that the Daily Mail has spiked her, it is a must read.
So, her remarks about the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, having been designed by committee, and Mantel’s ruminations on royal gynaecology has gone viral. Marvellous.
Mantel doesn’t, of course, say anything horrid. She merely points out what we all know, that Kate Middleton has been finished: finessed, drilled, dressed. She will be perfect. She will be adroitly, vacantly, nice. The royal family’s scalding experience of earlier, unruly recruits into the firm – Fergie and Diana, mother of Middleton’s husband William – made any other option intolerable and to be avoided whatever the cost.
Mantel’s LRB piece is a rumination on what she knows so well – royal bodies: What they wear, how they rustle around space, how they are produced, how they are penetrated; and how they are seen – to repeat George III’s mantra they must be seen, above all be seen.
Mantel argues that the purpose of the royal body is to breed. Yes. But there is more. Being seen is not just about being visible – indeed it is hardly that – and I don’t really share Mantel’s observation that we stare at royalty to find antiquity, to find the special.
When we stare aren’t we searching for something else? Aren’t we struggling with that paradox of monarchism, the evidence that they are not so much immortal as merely mortal? Aren’t we searching for something about them that is human?
That, finally is the problem: our democracy warrants their sovereignty and yet we worry about the price THEY pay. Not the price we pay for their indulgences; not the price we pay for our compromised, unfinished democracy, for our abjection as subjects rather than citizens.
No, the price they pay for the seeming pointlessness of their privilege, what Mantel describes as the airy enclosure that is always a cage.
The paradox is that when they show their humanity they are in trouble. Being seen in the royal firmament is never to show their humanity, it is about the parade as propaganda: it is about being seen as superior, as sovereign.
Jodie Foster answers the eternal question, “Am I gay?”, when she comes out in 2013, almost a quarter of a century after her magnificent movie The Accused.
Here’s my homage to Jodie Foster:
THE ACCUSED ON RELEASE, written in Marxism Today in 1989
The Accused is the first popular movie of the ’80s to self-consciously take the side of women and invite men to take responsibility for rape.
Its commitment to that project is a kind of redemption for the producers, Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, whose big hit, Fatal Att-raction, was a real shocker, a serious regression, emblematic not so much of 1980s’ postfeminism as anti-feminism.
The Accused, in contrast, takes its form from mainstream melodrama and its consciousness from modern feminism.
Unlike many movies which occupy the landscape of sexuality, The Accused does not face the woman viewer with the dilemma of her own self-destruction as a woman-with-desire, while she watches the drama of desire played out as woman’s destruction.
What the film offers women is the affirmation of their pain as victims, but more than that, it offers pleasure.
There’s pleasure in the metamorphosis of the classic portrayal of women as victims (they’re both doomed by men and yet dependent on the protection of men) into women as survivors, and more than that, as protagonists. For once women aren’t defeated. And they defend themselves.
Women’s pleasure as spectators is multiplied in solidarity with the performers. Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis, who play the rape victim and the assistant district attorney who prosecutes her case, have expressed not only pride in their performances, but in the politics of the whole project.
Foster, the child star who took herself off to Yale University, said that she wanted to play Sarah Tobias, the raunchy, working-class waitress, who is gang-raped, because she was ‘close to my heart’.
She wanted to enable Sarah ‘to find her own voice, to prove to society that she could rise above their low expectations of her’. McGillis wanted to play either Sarah or Kathryn Murphy, the cool, chic, district attorney, because she wanted to ‘help give other rape victims a voice’.
There is another level of identification with Foster and McGillis. They’re both stars and yet for once that doesn’t exempt them from the world of women — the debates in the United States have invoked both women’s real-life experience of sexual harassment and rape.
When it comes to the reality of sexual terrorism, they’re women just like any others. They’ve suffered, and they’re using the power of stardom not to transcend our reality but to intervene in it.
It is a measure of the permanence and yet the precariousness of patriarchy and of women’s insistent presence that popular Western culture gives us not only the trashy ‘Fatal Attraction’ but also serious and popular interventions in sexual politics like Farrah Fawcett’s chilling melodrama, ‘The Burning Bed’, about a battered woman who kills her husband; Nine To Five, the secretaries’ revenge movie; and now The Accused.
It is within civil society and the courts, (it’s no surprise that The Accused becomes a court-room drama), that we see the most dramatic expression nowadays of how the power struggle between men and women is regulated and resolved. It is there that we see sexual politics in the raw rather than within the political domain which remains aloof from the seismic shifts in contemporary sexual culture. It’s another ex-ample of the isolation of the Political domain from politics as she is lived.
Much of the debate about The Accused in the US has focused on Sarah and the rape scene. It is detailed and relentless.
The question is: does it titillate?
It’s an interesting question that, isn’t it? The assumption is that to show the abuse of a woman always risks the arousal of men.
The film also pushes the audience to the limits of conventional wisdom by making Sarah a sexual outlaw – she drinks, she likes to smoke dope and she flirts with her assailant.
But The Accused is meticulous here. Sarah is raped in a bar by a preppie, good-looking student while a posse of men cheer and join in.
The camera is positioned so that it neither identifies with the victim nor her assailants. While she lies prone on a pin ball machine, buried under the bodies of the rapists, our eye is guided to the clamouring, cheering men who not only let it happen but make it happen. They’re never allowed to be neutral.
There is also a modesty in the camera’s gaze. The movie makes no effort to dramatise Sarah’s pain and shame. To let us see into her would seem like another invasion.
For women spectators, perhaps, we bring to her what we already know.
And men? Well, they have to use their imagination. They are confronted by what they, too, know about their own sex, but in this scene they also have to see men as women see them and thus, as men must, too.
Interestingly, Sarah can’t see them. She is doomed to feel them and their effects. We, the spectators, also see the crowd through the eyes of two critical characters, the woman working in the same bar, who averts her gaze and gets on with her job. She wants no trouble, she’s got two children to take care of.
And then there’s the preppie student’s admiring buddy, who can’t take his eyes off what’s going on, and who hates what he sees. It is he who follows Sarah as she flees and it is he who calls the police to report the rape.
This brings us to another feature of the film’s politics: there are no spontaneous solidarities. It’s not a case of men are beasts and baddies and women are only goodies.
The goodies have to get better before they get to be goodies, and it is through the process of consciousness-raising that the film constructs the drama. It is the drama of self-discovery and the difficulty of solidarity which gives the narrative its frisson. Because we know from the beginning who has done what.
Here the film offers a fresh variant on what the feminist film critic Judith Williamson has designated the phenomenon of the ‘single working woman’ in the movies of the 1980s. These two are not professional women severed from communal or sexual context, but working women who are also sexual.
It is class which divides the women: the waitress from her attorney. McGillis as district attorney, is aloof and disinterested. She treats the victim, just as her assailants did, as an object, never consulting her, never confiding in her, never respecting her. The rapist student’s wealthy parents employ classy lawyers, and ultimately they do a deal. The law is not about the truth, after all, it is about winners and losers.
Sarah finds her redemption in her revolt. She storms into the attorney’s coolly exquisite apartment — a domestic laboratory — one night while she’s entertaining, and plays hell, as only a woman from her class can.
It is then that the professional woman finds sexual solidarity with the working class woman. Only then does the attorney take responsibility by deciding to prosecute the bystanders. To do that she also has to face out the opposition of her male colleagues in the district attorney’s department.
The film confronts all bystanders with their culpability by adopting this ingenious strategy of taking a legal action against some of the bar-room bystanders as accessories.
By their inertia they are not innocent or exempt, they are involved. And in their indolence. Murphy’s colleagues also forfeit the claim to innocence. They, too, are to blame.
The film dares not only to explore the difficulty of sisterhood, it also illuminates the swamp of male solidarity. The reluctant and scared male witness is tormented by his loyalty to the lads as well as to their victim. And the film lets us see why.
Two words haunt the trial of the bystanders. Sarah is asked what she said when she was being raped. “Did she cry for help?”, her interrogator asks. “No”, says Sarah, but what she did say, over and over again was, “NO”.
Was ‘No’ not enough?
These are key words, they challenge women’s historic subordination in film — the heroine’s salvation is traditionally supposed to lie in her proper dependence on a solitary hero, who in avenging her also avenges his own insulted masculinity. Here, Sarah’s integrity is restored by her own demand that her word was enough.
The Accused is suggestive of the political problems which challenge us in the late 1980s and which are about nothing if not the dissolution of old solidarities and the discovery of new ones.
Neither gender nor class alliances are immaculately conceived, made in heaven. Shared class or gender does not bring with it equivalent knowledge or identical interests, and this film’s maturity lies in its refusal of sentimental solidarities.
Sure, it’s got gross, queasy music, and yes, it carries some soppy characteristics of melodrama, but it is also disciplined in its refusal of easy unities.
That discipline is what gives The Accused its happy ending. The slut gets her proper status as a person; not as a victim but as a survivor. The snob discovers sister-hood. The scared boy becomes a man by joining women. And patriarchy, for once, gets the blame.
MARXISM TODAY, March 1989
Wild twittering about what exactly….? CAN THIS BE FEMINISM? http://www.dailydot.com/society/suzanne-moore-julie-burchill-transphobia/
Here’s my own take on bans, prohibitions and Julie Bindel being proscribed by NUS for allegedly being offensive:
Transgender activists who seek to ban her from speaking are wrong – we need to hear Julie Bindel on gender politics
I love Julie Bindel. There, I’ve said it, I love the woman some people love to hate.
We are bonded by offensiveness. When her activities got her into rucks with strangers who knew no better she’d pass herself off as me. Out of sheer malice. Marvellous. She is an adversary to be treasured. She is
necessary. She’s clever and quick, which sometimes makes her rough and even wrong; and yes, sometimes rude.
Bindel is also an inventive feminist campaigner who has helped to make life better for some women living the worst lives. Everyone should be entitled to hear her thinking aloud about gender politics. And she’s a scream, a low-down stand-up; and she should go on the stage. Ah, there’s the thing.
It is getting as hard to catch sight of her as it is of Aretha Franklin. Bindel is, in effect, being banned. Airing the complications and troubles oftransgender politics is being traduced as “transphobia”. Transgender people who used to live as men and now live as women persuaded the May 2009 NUS women’s conference to mandate its officers to share no platform with Julie Bindel. Proponents say they are offended by Bindel’s critique – aired in the Guardian since 2004 – of “trannies”‘ perceived cultural conservatism and anatomical violence.
The NUS women’s campaign shows no solidarity with women who are offended by the presence in their safe spaces of people who used to be men telling them which women they may listen to and who qualifies as queer. This month, her enemies mustered a picket outside Queer Question Time in a London pub. They’re not censoring her, they say, you can read her, they say, just don’t go to hear her. That renders her “audience” passive consumers but not engaged debaters. By the way, the blogger’s sexual semantics are interesting: women should “have the balls” to stop Bindel speaking.
They’re offended? So what? Offensiveness is a discourse shared by both politics and comedy. “Offendedness” is a privileged, protected category in the NUS against, specifically, rightwing extremists, racists and Julie Bindel. The women’s officer Olivia Bailey insists this is “not no platform” for Bindel. “The expression of transphobic views directly discriminates” against “valued members of our campaign.” It’s just that, “We welcome our trans sisters” and a group of them “had been made to feel uncomfortable”. Again, so what? This solidarity does not extend to women who feel unsettled by the presence of people who used to be men in women-only spaces and services.
This campaign obscures the question of power and the theory and practise of politics. Politics is the art of peaceful conflict. Index on Censorship reminds us that conflict and controversy are essential to civil society. “There is no right not to be offended,” says Padraig Reidy, Index spokesperson. “To imagine that you should be protected from offense to your sensibilities is neither realistic nor desirable.”
The transgender vigilantes should listen up, wise up and grow up, participate in, not proscribe, the debate they started. And their best friends in the NUS should do what best friends do: tell them to stop it, their politics stink.