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Everyday Sexism: it's the feels, not the facts (review)

One of the truly great qualities of feminism is its long-held partiality to action above theory. One of the truly terrible qualities of feminism is its long-held partiality to action above theory. This great and terrible movement has been overwhelmingly defined by a spirit of participation; as seen in collaborative best-seller Everyday Sexism. It has not, however, ever been defined by many more than half-a-dozen truly great thinkers.

Of course, feminism isn’t entirely or even largely to blame for the poverty of its formal thought. Men of reason have long and actively, if implicitly, held that sex informs the capacity for thought. But, hey. Femmos aren’t doing much to upturn 300 years of marginality in serious public debate. The feminist aversion to theory in favour of action has produced an especially ardent anti-intellectualism in an age of very ardent anti-intellectualism. Everyday Sexism is informed by its era just as much as it is by feminism.

There is a handful of remarkable feminist thinkers. De Beauvoir, Greer, Kristeva, Butler, Spivak; you can read the best of feminist theory in under a year. Except, it seems, that just about nobody bothers—or is at least reluctant to say that they do for fear of being called a wanker–and this is probably why busy women like Laura Bates can produce theory-lite busywork like Everyday Sexism and be hailed as “important”.

This book is important but only insofar as it is exemplary of what its dust-jacket calls “fourth wave feminism” and what I would call feminism as it was bound to unfold in an era that broadly privileges emotion above reason and personal accounts above evidence. “Fourth wave” is chiefly distinct from much of the second and third wave writings in its even greater revulsion for scholarship. Ours is a time short on facts and long on Feels. No wonder it’s feminism’s Time to Shine.

This era numbly weds the personal to the political. We social science denialists prefer juicy “lived experience” to plain old facts everywhere; not just in feminism. To this urge, Everyday Sexism delivers just as well as the awful “writing” of Murdoch op-ed. Today, anec-data is queen.

Like Shit My Dad Says before it, this project found its first expression online. Its author Laura Bates was needled into feminist action by the “reams and reams of pinpricks” (And no, you’re not the first to notice her peculiar choice of collective noun here). When some chap or another lobbed a crude sexist bomb, she was ignited and started a website where women shared their accounts of “everyday sexism”.

Women from all about the world contributed in large numbers to a forum and a Twitter hashtag. The jeremiad turned into a book and its author—or its meta-author—collected the royalties and plaudits. Themed chapters made of personal stories are preceded by the pseudo-legitimacy of bespoke facts on sexism. These are most often declared without attribution. Clearly, the Cambridge-educated Bates knows what she did was wrong. She does it anyway. In a note on her hyper-casual referencing of academic surveys at the end Bates says these “by no means represent the beginning and end of data on any given issue” but they “might provide a helpful general idea”.

Everyday Sexism does give us some helpful general ideas but these have much less to do with the construction of gender than they do with the processes that now produce an authoritative text—and this bestseller with its foreword from former British First Lady Sarah Brown is largely hailed as authoritative.

One of these processes is collaboration. It is the crowd that gives Bates her authority in a work that is half-written by other people.

Bates, to be fair, is just 27 and it would be a gratuitous cruelty to compare her crowd-sourced work to the formative 1970 text The Female Eunuch which was finished before its author’s thirtieth birthday. Actually, most writers come off poorly in comparison to a writer like Germaine Greer who can still put her erudition into a populist nutshell. So, we shan’t compare. In fact, we probably ought to avoid any sort of genuinely critical analysis of Bates’ work altogether. Let it suffice to say that this text is formed in hasty words and unsurprising thoughts.

Perhaps the most appropriate critical tradition in which to read this book is the great and terrible feminism that prizes action above theory; that valorises the practical and sees text as elite. The feminism which has developed procedural habits over forty years make it perfectly suited to our current era of feelpinion.

And, FFS. Before you rush headlong to the comments and say “what Razer fails to grasp is that women are in pain”, Razer doesn’t fail to grasp. I am now, as I have been for my entire adult intellectual life, keenly aware that gender is a nonsense construction that works as an alibi for social inequality and normative violence. I just don’t fucking think the way to fucking disassembly is through rampant individualism, shit-house writing and the insincere belief that “all women have something valuable to say”. In a public context, some people sometimes have nothing that is of any value to say; viz. Tracey Spicer. And so, perhaps it is unsurprising that I find Laura Bates’ use of unpaid and unsurprising female intellectual labour tedious.

Of course, some younger readers may not find this litany tedious. They may be excited by some of the accounts and I guess it’s not a bad thing if a 15-year-old person begins to consider the possibility that their identity is constructed. In fact, Bates’ best chapter is where she considers the idea of masculine identity and says more-or-less outright that gender is a performance we all uphold.

Goodness, I wish her editor had asked her to riff on this Butler-inspired theme and really take that Oxbridge education to work. That’s the kind of pop-feminism that might really “make a difference”. Instead, there is this single admission that power is diffuse and that we are all repetitively complicit in the illusion of gender. The rest of the time, she returns to the unfinished thinking so prevalent in popular feminism. The idea that the Page Three girl of British newspapers “causes” sexual abuse is, for example, absurd and unscholarly. That it emerges in a book thick with the tabloid terror of rape just pisses me off. And, no. I am not “denying” that rape occurs. I am merely suggesting that the new and popular depiction of rape as a frequently deployed weapon of sexual war will serve to do nothing but scare the shit out of little girls.

But Bates has received positive reviews and a free-pass to write middling piffle sourced from anonymous users, strong feelings and vague “studies”. This might seem curious until you understand, as the majority of feminists do, that feminist books are not as much means as they are ends.

In other words bound to raise the hackles of everyday feminists, the women’s movement has long been Kantian. This is an ethics that is clearly uttered in the early ‘70s slogan “the personal is political” or in the Golden Rule which forms the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative. Namely: do unto others. And it seems nice to think that by acting well—i.e. producing collaborative books that honour “lived experience”—we will achieve good results. But for the sake of fuck, it is time that bitches get a bit more utilitarian. Which is to say, outcomes should be valued above all else; and this includes hurt feelings and the fear that someone thinks you’re a wanker because you read Judith Butler.

Feminism may be miscellaneous in its goals but it is all but unified in its disdain for book-learnin’. This “total must-read” by prominent blogger Jessica Valenti is typical in its impatience with those few feminist writers who fail to make pedagogical mark-downs for readers who have not “read Judith Butler or heard of Foucault”. Intellectualism holds the same stigma within much of feminism as it does in the writing of Nick Cater. Feminism may be professedly progressive but it is also fearful of its own intellectual progression.

But, as we’ve said from the outset, feminism is peerlessly inclusive. No social movement has ever punished itself so long and admirably for its slowness to engage women of all social, economic and cultural classes. And even though I am an arsehole who loathed this quickie book of “lived experience”, I would never think to suggest that this achievement by feminism is quite something.

But, just as feminism scrutinises itself for its accessibility to all women, it must urgently do the same for all approaches. While “lived experience” retains a licit potency, this is as nothing compared to powerful ideas.

And powerful ideas take time, patience and scholarship. And they rarely emerge in Twitter hashtags and a book comprised from same.

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates is published by Simon and Schuster

Featured image: Laura Bates and Katie Price at a London panel debate ‘Does Page 3 make the world a better place?’

17 responses to “Everyday Sexism: it's the feels, not the facts (review)

  1. Surely any critique of any feminist work is “policing” it. And, if this is the case—and if it also the case that the author of any such criticism will be called elitist or, as is the case her, an aspiring-elite—then what hope is there for a feminism that looks at itself and its techniques?
    I was careful to begin this piece and end and imbue this piece with the clear statement that feminism’s habit of inclusion is one of its strong suits. So I am not by any means saying that it is an exclusive club. I am simply making the unsurprising point that complex work is needed by any complex social movement. And, that feminism tends largely to be very intolerant of academic or theoretical work as “elite”. Or, worse, aspiring elite.
    So, you’ve got yourself a nice syllogism there for any critical voices: Feminism is For Everyone. You Are Not Everyone. Therefore You Are Not a Feminist.
    Come on. HTFU. This is a book review and not police-work.

    1. Whether or not you refer to your opinion as “policing” or not, you are clearly trying to make it out like feminism as a movement holds more sway in highly academic texts, which is a fallacy. Discrimination, sexual assault, objectification and so on would occur with or without academic deconstruction. I don’t need to read those grand works, whether modern or historic, to know that when a man sexually assaults me or another woman, it is sexism and totally unacceptable. Nor do you need people to be so elite as all that to realise that the whole driving point behind @everydaysexism was originally to demonstrate how often these sorts of sexist things occur, when it was so frequently brushed off as uncommon or exaggeration. It is callous and rather damaging to the cause to suggest that this is merely an emotional outpouring, rather than a movement which facilitates the education of men (and women) who otherwise would never have cared. Obviously literature on the theory and practice of feminism plays a valuable role, but to use it against other, equally valuable forms of feminism (that have accomplished real progress) is a pointless exercise. Not to mention limiting it to some emotional display without any thought or theory is reminiscent of those who call women hysterical as opposed to acknowledging their right to want to govern their ow bodies. I am astounded that a commenter above seemed to think this is just women saying “men are docuhebags” which is clearly a shallow and incorrect observation. Pardon my language but if you don’t fucking like women complaining about men who sexually harrassed them, maybe you should blame the men who fucking sexually harrassed them in the first place. Patronising victim blaming is pathetic and should have no place in any real feminist discussion.

  2. Helen Razer has taken the liberty of policing feminism, asserting her same old argument that others simply aren’t doing it right. This piece nicely demonstrates that only academics, which Helen unabashedly includes herself amongst, can research and write about feminism. Feminism in Helen’s view is an exclusive club, and she has appointed herself the authority on deciding whether you have the credentials to join.

  3. i read a few of those err’day sexism stories, a lot of the time it amounted to little more than men being douchebags. i suppose any behaviour found disagreeable by women is now deemed “sexist” because “OMG men right?”

  4. I think it’s okay for academics like Butler to exist. Her ideas might seem out-of-touch but, then again, so were Foucault’s (from whom she borrows her idea of things, like gender, with a history) and over time, these accounts can become more broadly understood. And it takes time because the ideas are complex and the thinkers are prescient.
    It seems odd to me to demand that all feminist thinkers be somehow more readable and practical than their academic colleagues. This is not something we expect from more “general” theorists. And it’s just churlish to dismiss Foucault or Lacan or Nietzsche or any of the people who informed Butler. And people of restraint tend not to say “well that’s dumb because I don’t understand it”. However, in feminism, this is far more acceptable.
    Let feminist theory, of abstruse deconstruction or straight-ahead social science, flourish without the toxin that demands it be roundly understood by all in the Lady Garden. I find Butler and Spivak very challenging and I had to go back to Marx, Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud etc to understand them even a bit. And I understand that this is a “privilege”, but so what?
    We surely need a climate that is faintly more tolerant and less homogenous. We all don’t need to understand everything. But I think we should want to live in a world where good feminist theory beyond our ken flourishes just as science might in exactly the same way.

  5. It is really timely you writing this piece as I was just complaining about a lot of ‘feminist’ organization list serves (reading material) I subscribe to such as the London Feminist Network, Oxfam or AWID are uninspiring and lacking theoretical substance. But then I find myself reading theory that is lost and out of touch with reality (does anyone understand Butler really?). I do think the feminist principle of the personal is political, thereby accounting for personal circumstance or experiences has a lot of value. This type of qualitative evidence is a type of evidence that should be factored into traditional research and inform theory (and feminist thinkers are having influence there I think more generally on academia), but it should not be the basis for the whole movement –perhaps this is why the movement is so segregated as individual people have very different personal experiences whereas theory is more generalizable. Just my reflections

  6. Well, we do need enduring, powerful ideas, because the same shit keeps coming around and around. I would argue however that one of the more successful ‘action’ items of 70’s feminism was “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. As an insecure young person I learned so much from that book, – I read Greer as well, but it was the practicality of OBO that won me. Place for both?

    1. Odd that you you should ask if there is “room for both”. Here and elsewhere it seems that my explicit praise for inclusiveness we allow our “thought leaders” to be people who can actually think.
      “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood” said Keynes. And, his own ideas went on to influence generations of economists and, of course, people. He was perhaps Gillard’s greatest influence.
      We take it as read that economists are needed to theorise large systems in order to reorganise them. We don’t look at the free market and describe it solely in terms of “lived experience” Certainly, personal stories about the lives of people afflicted by capital might be useful to help us understand its mechanisms. But there is no way in heck any sane person would say we can just work the injustices out by recourse to Personal Action.
      I utterly understand anecdotes can be of some use. I said this openly three times in the piece. I open by saying that it is one of the great things about feminism. But feminism has such a documented aversion to a theory of gender and these inhospitable conditions serve to dissuade good minds from scholarship and, worse, move people by means of emotion.
      Emotion does little to advance a just economic system. It will do letter to help us manage an enormous cultural and social system like gender. The writings on the matter are so scant and I attribute this not just to a lack of interest but active disdain. Many many feminists dismiss theory as “elite”; and while it’s true that people of privilege tend to be the ones who write books, that’s the unfortunate case in this mucked up world. Marx had a benefactor. And thank goodness for that. Let’s be the Engels to our emerging Karl-ettes, shall we? Let’s shut up about ourselves for one millisecond and think more broadly about how systems work rather than banging on and on about Page Three girls.

  7. The hyper-inclusiveness of modern feminism may be an overcompensation for the complete domination of white, Protestant, upper middle-class women of the Anglosphere movement until the 60s. There has also been a strain of deeply illiberal sentiment among women’s activists — many suffragettes went on to become supporters of fascism in the 30s — and a sense of authoritarianism still lingers today. That said, I would say there is some cause for optimism among the new generation of activists, even if Clementine Ford is still writing columns.

  8. If it’s utilitarianism you’re after, along with the kind of intellectual rigour and substance that will actually stand up to scrutiny even when expressed in plain English, Martha Nussbaum is the person you want.

    She has the interests of all humans, and not a few animals, in her sights though, so perhaps she’s of limited interest to real feminist theory fans.

  9. Helen Razer you make me work hard in my tiny mind, as usual. Thank-you. But I can’t link to the Jessica Valenti article? Crikey please fix? Oh and Bob, if you’re going to go down this weird path of putting words in an author’s mouth you should probably make sure you’ve got some evidence to support them.

  10. As some one who has read a significant, but no means entire, amount of De Beauvoir, Greer, French, Friedan et al. I have to agree I’m tired of this over simplification of larger issues. Yes it’s fecking galling to be leered at like a piece of rump roast but I’m more concerned with equal pay for equal work or an actual issue. I fear that by calling men out on these smaller things so consistently we weaken our cause and turn it into a school yard wail of the ‘he’s picking on me’ type. I understand that sometimes from little things big things grow but if we are teaching our girls that there fight lies in the detail we might miss the bigger picture.

  11. If feminism is going to go down this weird path of abolishing gender altogether it should probably stop calling itself “feminism”, a heavily gendered term itself.

    Of course early feminism had no interest in that sort of postmodern lunacy, it advocated for women as equals with men, not for a crusade to end the concept of gender

  12. Agree that almost nobody bothers to read the theory, and yet many think they can get away with writing as experts on this subject. These are my thoughts exactly on Nicholas Kristof and Half the Sky. Kristof could have really done with doing Gender Studies 101 or Development Studies 101 or even Gender and Development 101 before writing a whole book about gender and development.
    Disagree that you can understand the feminist literature in under a year, if you are including Gayatri Spivak in that. Her essay Can the Subaltern Speak alone has taken me years to try to understand. It is definitely humbling. I have heard it said that she deliberately made her writing almost impenetrable so as to make sure that her critics have to actually stop and think before dismissing her.


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