Saturday, April 01, 2006

Feminism Versus "Feminism"

A few days ago Kate Taylor produced an impressively stupid article for the Guardian entitled 'Today's ultimate feminists are the chicks in crop tops'. The title tells you pretty much all you need to know about the content (and quality) of the argument - but I'm going to quote some of it anyway, just to show how utterly depressing it was. The article seems to have been written as a response to US feminist Ariel Levy's tirade against 'raunch culture' and British feminist Rachel Bell's criticism of Nuts, Zoo and etc. Taylor argues:

"today's girls are playing with the old-fashioned notion of being seen as sex objects.

This is not terrible news. In fact, to me, this is the ultimate feminist ideal, which Levy would realise if she stopped shouting at MTV for a moment and thought about it. She proclaims that boob jobs and crop tops "don't bring us any closer to the fundamental feminist project of allowing every woman to be her own, specific self". But what if a woman's "own, specific self" is a thong-wearing, Playboy-T-shirted specific self who thinks lap-dancing is a laugh and likes getting wolf-whistled at by builders? What if a woman spends hours in the gym to create a body she is proud of? Is that a waste of time, time she should have spent in a university library? No"


"I've worked for GQ and the Sun, and in neither place did I see women being exploited. Does Bell have any idea how much money women make when they take their clothes off? How much freedom and independence these girls can earn in an hour? Abi Titmuss and the new breed of totty generally own the copyright to their naughtiest photos, so with each publication they rake it in. Look at lads' mags from a different perspective and you see that what's being exploited are men's sexual responses, to give money to women.

It has always been like this, and it always will be, because men's achilles heel is that they go to pieces when a woman drops her top. Old-style feminists never understood this, but their way is not the only way to achieve equality with men. The world is different now, and we should follow the trends instead of waving the banners of 20 years ago."

Here's the marvellous finale;

"If a thong makes you feel fabulous, wear it. For one thing, men in the office waste whole afternoons staring at your bottom, placing bets on whether you're wearing underwear. Let them. Use that time to take over the company."

Notice the standard right wing, pro-market, 'modernising' polemical tactic of pushing extremely tenuous claims in the form of apparently self-evident truism. Taylor simply asserts, for example, that 'it has always been like this' and that 'the world is different now'. Both of these claims seem, at the very least, highly contentious. Of course, there's an awkward paradox lurking there too - it's 'always been like this' (resistance is futile and it has always been futile) but also 'things have changed' (so perhaps it was possible to resist in the past, but not any more?) It's highly reminiscent of the standard New Labour 'globalisation' discourse - the justification of welfare cuts and so on by reference to trans-historical, primordial, elemental 'laws of the market' beyond conscious human control and, simultaneously, by reference to the fundamentally changed economic paradigm of globally integrated markets.

"Does Bell have any idea how much money women make when they take their clothes off?" Taylor claims. This is breathtaking stuff. Leaving aside the question of whether Abi Titmuss, specifically, is exploited by the soft-porn, topless 'celeb' in glossy magazine industry, what does Taylor think about the hundreds of women in the sex industry who don't earn Titmuss's wages? Does Taylor imagine that Titmuss and her (presumably) high paid ilk are anything but a tiny minority? One often hears this, in arguments attempting to absolve the porn industry of any blame - the huge earnings of a few particular superstars are pointed to, as if these are at all representative. The scale of misery, exploitation, deperation and brutality only a few rungs down from the 'porn star' level is huge - and usually unacknowledged by eager pro-porn advocates.

Furthermore, Taylor doesn't seem to have grasped the main point which people like Levy are trying to make - which is that, regardless of the pay packets of the lucky few on the pages of glossy magazines, the major issue at stake here is the way in which the proliferation of (wholly unrealistic) sexual images of 'glamour models' and so on shapes cultural and social attitudes and assumptions about the role of women, the status of women, the way in which women should look or behave and so on. Surely it's not unrelated that alongside the explosive growth of the fashion industry, the celeb industry and the porn industry (all of which promote and circulate in their different ways, images of women who tend to look rather similar - slim, pretty, big breasted, passive) there are growing numbers of young women who suffer from depression and eating disorders. There is enormous pressure on girls to look and behave a certain way - to look like the images of young women they see on advertising boards or on TV, to behave as the glossy magazines (women's and men's) tell them to (or imply that they should).

The main thing to say about Taylor's article though, is that it is, simply offensive. It is offensive to argue that 'successful' women should wear crop tops, thongs and gyrate in front of men - that this is somehow to be 'liberated'. The idea seems to be that women should revel in their own sexual inferiority - that to be an objectified bit of T&A, is all that women should aspire to. What was it that Marcuse said about internalized oppression and 'false liberation'? I can't be bothered to get a quote - but you know what I mean.

Taylor's article prompted, thankfully, a storm of criticism in the letters page of the paper. In today's Guardian Madeleine Bunting hits back, too. The article is important I think, because Bunting sees Taylor's 'raunch culture' in the context of the increasing commodification of human sexuality. It does not appear to have occurred to Taylor that the growth of 'raunch culture' is driven by marketisation and the search for profit rather more than it is an expression of autonomous, freely chosen self-expression on the part of individual women. As every socialist knows (and as, in fact, every competent capitalist knows, come to think of it) capitalism cannot stand still - capital must accumulate and continually expand in order to survive. This accumulation-drive, inherent in the logic of capitalism, means that capitalists are continually on the look out for new markets. Over time more and more spheres of human life become marketised - colonized by the law of value. There's been a capitalist market in sex for quite some time, but over the last 20 to 30 years especially, the significance and extent of this market has grown exponentially. Sex and sexual relationships are of course an essential part of human existence and so the colonisation of this sphere is particularly lucrative. The market here isn't simply in sex directly - prostitution or pornography - but is also manifested in more indirect forms. Advertisers routinely use sexuality to sell us stuff (clothes, mobiles, music) and it seems to me that the market now increasingly mediates actual personal human sexual relationships. I'm thinking here of the influence of 'lifestyle' magazines and so on in which both women and men are surreptitiously pressurised into behaving in certain ways - persuaded to conform to manufactured 'lifestyle' norms. These normalised behaviours of course link relationship 'success' to consumption - if you want to attract and keep a man you'd better use Max Factor, or wear these designer clothes, or have your hair cut like this. But they also help to reproduce specifically capitalist, market forms of identity (of self-conception) in the sphere of inter-personal relationships. That is, increasingly commodified sexual relationships/identities are increasingly individualised, atomised and operate on the basis of a competitive, instrumentalist logic. As Bunting writes:

Another of the many concepts of the market that have infiltrated intimacy is an instrumentalism: "I get this need met in return for meeting her need on that"; when people talk honestly about their relationships, you can often hear the totting up of an emotional account. At its crudest there is no responsibility to the other person beyond the striking of the deal.

You often see this sort of individualist-instrumentalist logic in both women's and men's magazines approaches to relationships - how to dump your current partner and 'upgrade to a better model', how to get into bed with as many women/men as possible, is your man/woman 'holding you back' etc etc? The centre of attention must be you (naturally, a utility maximising market individual) and the prime consideration must be the question of what you get out of it, how do you strike the best deal, how do you hoodwink and outplay your partner-competitor in the sexual market? This isn't liberation, 'girl-power' or emancipation - it's just another form of enslavement for both men and women.


It's worth reading the comments underneath Bunting's article, incidentally. Some fuckwit named Tim Worstall (a right wing blogger if memory serves) has provided some particularly moronic (and implicitly chauvinistic) views. Said fuckwit brays:

"Every trade takes place in a market. Whether we're talking about sex as physical gratification being exchanged, or rather more romantically about love and mutual affection being shown in a physical manner, that's still a market. Just about everything that humans do is a market transaction, not all of them involve money to be sure but they are still exchanges."

The old saying that 'some people know the price of everything and value of nothing' pops to mind first of all. It always surprises me to find that there really are people who really do appear to think that all of their interations with other human beings are wholly instrumental, utility maximising, competitive manoeuvrings. Secondly, Worstall's definition of market exchange is ludicrously wide. If the description 'market transaction' can be applied to every human interaction - 'just about everything that humans do' - then the concept of 'market transaction' is so stretched that it becomes meaningless.

I would leave a comment on the Guardian site for Mr Worstall, but I'm afraid that if I register to post on the site I'll spend too much time there and I should be working.

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