Caroline Criado-Perez, author of Do It Like a Woman, at the National Women's Conference. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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What does it mean to Do It Like A Woman in a sexist society?

After successfully earning Jane Austen a place on the £10 note, Caroline Criado-Perez has turned to feminist action around the globe.

Do It Like a Woman
Caroline Criado-Perez
Portobello Books, 326pp, £12.99

Feminism is a tradition of thought and ­political action that goes back more than 300 years. It is one of the great democratic global movements of our time, no matter what you make of its conclusions. So you would think that when Caroline Criado-Perez pointed out to the Bank of England in 2013 that dropping Elizabeth Fry as the face of the fiver and replacing her with Winston Churchill would leave us with no woman on a banknote apart from the Queen, it would have thanked her. But the Bank stonewalled. Criado-Perez took it on and launched a campaign – thanks to which we will now have the mighty Great Briton Jane Austen as the face of the £10 note.

Criado-Perez’s mother, Alison, who became a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières in her post-divorce fifties, is the maternal role model who launches this debut about women in our present day whom we must not allow to be forgotten and what it means to “do it like a woman” in a sexist society.
Criado-Perez collects the contemporary feminist equivalent of an international brigade of non-violent freedom fighters from around the globe and reminds us of their stories. The book reads as an extended and immersive piece of investigative journalism, strong on sound facts and figures, finding interconnections and then leaving readers space to draw our own conclusions.

Criado-Perez organises her subjects in five themed chapters on “doing”, “speaking”, “leading”, “advocating” and “choosing” like a woman, crossing continents in her case studies and making international comparisons within each chapter. It’s an effective structure, supporting both the personal quest and political investigations of a book that is – in keeping with Criado-Perez’s peripatetic upbringing – deftly global, not parochial.

Visibility is the price of activism and has always made campaigners vulnerable to attack. But the relentless, misogynistic Twitter terrorism of extreme and explicit rape and death threats to which Criado-Perez was subjected – just because she supported celebrating women’s achievements on a banknote – was off the scale. It is typical of her style and integrity that she spends just a few pages frankly summarising her experience in a chapter about the consequences to women of speaking out. Then she moves on swiftly to Asmaa Mahfouz, whose video calling on people to join her in Tahrir Square to protest publicly against the regime of Hosni Mubarak sparked off Egypt’s revolution; then to the still-raging controversy over the journalist Mona Eltahawy’s magazine piece “Why do they hate us?”, about women in the Arab world; and onwards to the work of Emma Norton, a solicitor for Liberty, representing the case of the Royal Military Police (RMP) officer Anne-Marie Ellement. In 2009, Ellement reported being raped by two colleagues. RMP officers investigated but no charges were brought and she was bullied and harassed. In 2011, she took her own life.

Criado-Perez pursues the incidence of unprosecuted rape in the military from the UK to the US, sifts the statistics and steps back to reflect on institutional sexual violence. Keeping her vision broad and objective, she turns her sights on development NGOs that bolster and perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence in, for example, India, with insensitive local solutions blinkered by an imperialistic white saviour complex.

These are just a few examples from a book packed with stories ranging from the mainstream to those from the margins of activist work. The pleasure of Do It Like a Woman is that it’s about other women – their campaigns, their political interventions, their stories. In a world overstuffed with tedious me-myself-and-I-as-hero-of-my-own-narrative books, Criado-Perez has had the good sense to deliver an overview that grasps the essential impetus of feminism – as collective, connective action by a diversity of women whose voices are as brave and informed as Criado-Perez’s.

Emerging clearly from Do It Like a Woman is the impact of social media and digital networks on feminism. In 1970, in The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone looked to future technology as an unpredictable but certain force for feminism and gender equality. Not surprisingly, since she was writing in the 1970s, Firestone mused with accuracy on revolutions in reproductive technologies and labour-saving automation. But what she didn’t predict was the revolution in communications technology. Criado-Perez – who shares some of the clarity and insight of the young Firestone – shows that, for better and for worse, it is the internet, not in vitro fertilisation, that has become the enabler of the new 21st-century feminist movement.

Rachel Holmes is the author of “Eleanor Marx: a Life” (Bloomsbury)

Rachel Holmes is the author of, most recently, Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury).

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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