Not an Odalisque

Whatever Happened to Class?

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Today is International Women’s Day. When I lived in China it was celebrated with a day off work, here in the UK it seems to be used as a vehicle for examining the progress of feminism in the national press. I think I preferred the Chinese version.

If you’re a Guardian reader (and what self-flagellating British liberal isn’t?) you’ll have noticed that every feminist issue recently has come with a quote or from Natasha Walters on the sorry state of feminism. She has a new book out, and, I suspect, a friend on the editorial board. Combine her oft-repeated argument that women are increasingly participating in their own objectification with the recent report on the sexualisation of children, though, and you would be forgiven for thinking half of the British population are disguising themselves as sex-dolls and hookers in order to tempt men to stuff five pound notes into their bras.

There has always been pressure on women to look good, but there has rarely been so much pressure on women to look like porn stars. Access to and use of pornography, strip clubs and prostitutes is now widespread. The number of men using prostitutes doubled in the 1990s (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/06/charlotte-raven-feminism-madonna-price) the number of lap-dancing clubs has risen 1,150% since 1997 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1252734/Domesday-Book-2010-Strip-clubs-soaring-libraries-disappearing–figures-lay-bare-life-modern-Britain.html). Broadband connections are pretty common, too; who doesn’t look at porn?

Men are paying for women’s bodies and it is very visible. When the bus stop is outside the strip club, you wait outside the strip club (bad planning, Liverpool City Council!). You can’t insulate yourself from the media. This week I’ve seen several hardcore pornographic pictures I didn’t want to see, through internet advertising. I’ve heard radio adverts in which breathy women seem to promise sex in return for scrap metal (that was quite odd). Even the photos in my cookery books seem to focus on the body of the author, rather than her baking.

This makes a lot of us feel insecure. There’s a little voice at the back of our minds saying that men want women who look like that, rather than like me. It’s not enough to make meringues, I have to find the opportunity to sensuously lick something gloopy off my finger while I do it. There will always be someone there to exploit that insecurity, because there’s money in it, so they try to sell you make-up, clothes, diet pills, breast implants and pussy dye (yes, I said pussy dye: http://www.mynewpinkbutton.com/category/29754061681/1/Beauty-Product.htm). There are two common responses: to try to look better, or to assert that looks don’t matter. Join them or beat them.

Enter feminism, which tries to offer ways of valuing women that aren’t about how desirable they are to men. In the earliest days Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about women’s education for that reason. Women fought to be able to go to work for that reason. We thought we’d mostly won. So when we see society pushing women back into the role of sex object, when we see Tesco selling pole dancing kits as children’s toys (http://www.feministing.com/archives/005946.html) and stationers selling Playboy merchandise to little girls (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2005/aug/15/pressandpublishing.genderissues), feminists get angry. But who should we be angry with?

We should ask ourselves why feminist ideas on how to value women aren’t accepted, while sexual objectification is. Because it really is. Teenagers want to be glamour models, they cite Katie Price as a role model (http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/161/161338_naked_ambition_rubs_off_on_teen_girls.html) . There’s something rather patronising about the way feminists wring their hands and blame culture for brainwashing children. Could it possibly be that they just don’t like our version of who they should be?

This issue crystallised for me when I came across this.

.

It can be seen as a great feminist response to a song in which a woman claims value only in terms of men’s desire, suggesting an empowering alternative in which we value women’s brains. Sounds great. But what if you can’t get an A in it?

Some girls just aren’t that brainy. They aren’t going to become lawyers or doctors, and it’s not because they are disadvantaged, or lack encouragement. We ask that only the best pursue those careers. Most women aren’t the best. Most men aren’t, either. What does feminism have to offer them?

Feminism is a mostly middle-class movement. It campaigns on middle class issues. Working class women did not fight to be allowed to work, they had always worked, out of economic necessity rather than a desire for fulfilment and independence. Today the work ethic, education and career success are part of middle class values. They also seem to be feminist values. We are proud that women are achieving the positions middle class men covet. To do that you should work hard, get a good education and an important job. The problem is that a good education is not available to a lot of working class girls. Even in my position as middle-class, with my private schooling and postgraduate education, I can’t claim that my career has much sparkle. What if I had been to a school with a 50% GCSE pass rate? What if I didn’t have any role models who worked? What if I just saw through the rhetoric which told me I had to combine career-woman, domestic goddess and sex kitten, when I could choose just one?

I don’t have an alternative system to propose. I judge women (indeed, everyone) on a diverse range of factors, many of them idiosyncratic, like whether they agree with my reading of Nietzsche and if they share my sense of humour. It would be easy to say that everyone is special and has their own unique contribution to make to the world, but that rather misses the point. It is an idea which loses its currency when you’re sat next to a bore at dinner.

What I do know is that what we are doing isn’t working. Feminism isn’t speaking to most women. Why don’t we offer them something different?

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Written by Not an Odalisque

March 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm

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