Friday, November 24, 2006

Never be your woman

Yesterday I was giving a talk on the egocentricity of the digital revolution ... and afterwards stood around chatting to some media lecturers, all seemingly left wing intellectuals. They were dolefully discussing how their students showed no interest in criticising brainless, celebrity-obsessed and pornographic magazines, deeming it to be purely a matter of choice what one reads, and whether a woman chooses to be photographed naked. One of these academics said that it is only around five years since every class contained at least one out-spoken feminist, but that these have either disappeared, or been silenced by a new majoritarian view that it is arrogant/pretentious to take up political positions in such a way.

Five years. The Blair government has coincided with an important generational-cultural shift, just as the Wilson government did 30 years earlier. If racism and sexism started to become unacceptable in the late 60s, thanks to a post-war generation that refused to accept them, then perhaps the defence of rights started to become unacceptable in the late 90s thanks to a post-Thatcher generation that refuses to accept it, on the basis that political rights arrogantly trump consumer rights.

Today the newspapers report that sexual harassment of teachers and pupils in schools is widespread, and that girls are starting to accept sexist language as the norm ... Have I simply dragged some value set from the distant past, which I want to see imposed upon this new social avant garde? My sense of frustration about this is doubtless no more morally sincere or keenly felt than that of the 60s conservatives, who despaired at what the kids were doing then. In each case, a moral gulf opens up, and politics struggles in vain to bridge it.

If history really is repeating itself, expect to see a 'conservative' backlash, whereby those born between 45-79 seize power and attempt to force some traditional values on the youth (more or less what we're already seeing, even from Ken Livingstone), followed by a bright new political dawn around 2020, in which a young fresh-faced child of Thatcher marches down Downing Street in a hoodie, swigging from an alco-pop, and announcing in faux-cockney tones that he's a pretty straight guy who used to be into 50 Cent.
The horror, the horror.

I don't know about the last paragraph - I just kept it in because it's funny. The part about sexism is interesting, though. Here's a comment I posted on Will's blog:

I am not a Hegelian... oh all right then, I'm a recovering Hegelian... but I think there's more historical cunning at work than your academic friends allow. As little as thirty years ago, it was widely assumed that women's only roles were to be decorative and look after children; women who 'made it in a man's world' were freakish oddities. (When Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party, a popular slogan on the left was 'Ditch the Bitch'. Right on, brother.) If seventies feminists did a lot of shouting, they had a lot to shout about.

So it's true on one level that magazines like Nuts and FHM take us back forty years, to the days of Titbits and Reveille - and it's true that pornographic imagery is degrading, oppressively so when it's ubiquitous. But it's also true that some of the core feminist arguments have been won, or at least conceded. The very language in which these students defend those magazines reflects the radical liberalism of mainstream feminism, or of the mainstreaming of feminism: why shouldn't a woman be a doctor/bus-driver/MP/astronaut? why shouldn't a woman go where she likes and wear what she likes? why shouldn't a woman take her clothes off for the cameras if she wants to?

Feminism also meant a much harder set of arguments, having to do with dignity rather than freedom of action. These are questions of what's good for women as women - and, more importantly, who gets to decide. I'd say that the problem on this front isn't that the gains of women's liberation have been rolled back, so much as that they were never really made. "Women shouldn't have to look sexy all the time" is a fine liberal argument - it's a subset of the belief that nobody should have to do anything. "Women shouldn't be expected to look sexy" is another matter, and finds a lot of liberals on the other side of the fence - after all, why shouldn't people have expectations of one another, and why shouldn't people sometimes choose to comply with other people's expectations?

It's an argument which was never really won - and, I would argue, it's come back to bite us in the shape of the hijab debate. Twice over, in fact: advocates of hijab play a distorted and sexist version of the dignity argument ("why should a woman be expected to put herself on display?") while advocates of other people's right to wear hijab play a version of liberalism that seems equally distorted by sexism ("why shouldn't a woman have the right to shield herself from prying eyes?").

So I think you can add to your list of prophecies that feminism will be back, but it won't be so liberal next time. And it'll probably be wearing a pinafore dress over jeans. (Why do people do that? Women mainly.)

While I'm in philosophical mode, a swift plug for Clive's dissection of Blair's weird and sinister maunderings on the 'social contract', which he seems to want to replace with... well, an actual contract (only this time round they would impose it on us, not the other way round). I rarely succeed in getting through Blair's statements, what with being overcome by outrage, panic or sheer pedantic irritation (no, look, it doesn't mean that...). Fortunately Clive is made of sterner stuff.

Q: Why is the Italian government letting convicted fraudsters out of prison?
A: It's all because of the Christian Democrats.
Q: But the Christian Democrats ceased to exist over a decade ago, didn't they?
A: Indeed they did, my knowledgeable questioner. But they're still making the political weather.
Q: Oh. What's that about then?
A: Read "Open up the nicks", new from me at the Sharpener. The second in a six-monthly series of commentaries on Italian politics. Possibly more interesting than it sounds. (I can't really tell - I mean, it sounds pretty interesting to me...)

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