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