Feminism's biggest challenge for 2012: justifying its existence

No one likes being told what to do.

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist," says Verbal Kint at the end of The Usual Suspects. As we approach the beginning of 2012, feminism's greatest trick must be to convince the world it should still exist.

This morning, because I am apparently constitutionally unable to take a holiday, I asked my Twitter followers what I thought was a simple question: "What is the biggest, most important single issue for feminists in 2012? What should we get angry about?" My reasoning was that with limited attention spans and resources, any movement has to have a focus; and with feminism now so diverse (and its different strands sometimes so combative) it would be interesting to see what the biggest issues were.

Perhaps I should have predicted the first wave of answers: pandas. It was a reference to yesterday's teapot-storm about the BBC choosing a female panda as one of its "Faces of the Year - Women". I'd had a mild grump about this, and then a larger grump at people telling me that I shouldn't be grumpy when famine and disease were going on. (It's all about proportion. Yes, it's important not to get endlessly bogged down in trivial crap, but it's not as if I would have spent the time I used on those handful of tweets to further the Middle East peace process. But that's a post for another day, to be entitled: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.)

After that, an incredibly diverse range of answers began to flow in, including: women's rights in Saudi Arabia; the mistreatment of women in Egypt by the security forces; the disproportionate effect of the coalition's cuts on women; the low number of female MPs; gender stereotyping in advertising; under-representation in the media; lapdancing clubs; rape; "slut shaming"; abortion rights . . . the list goes on. Have a look at the #fem2012 hashtag for more.

These are all fascinating topics, and give the lie to the idea that Western feminists are only interested in opposing pink Lego to the exclusion of the graver issues faced by women in theocratic and developing countries. (Again: it's possible to care about more than one thing at once.) But soon, two common complaints emerged alongside the suggestions.

The first was that feminism needed to find a way to be less "angry". Now, this was partly down to the phrasing of my original question (as one person suggested: Why didn't you ask what feminism should try to achieve in 2012?) and I accept that. No one likes being lectured all the time.

The trouble is, of course, that feminists do have to be angry - or passionate, to use a less loaded term. I don't know how you can expect anyone to campaign against, say, female circumcision without getting just a little bit cross that girls who haven't even yet reached puberty are told their bodies are dirty, that sexual pleasure is sinful, and then forced to undergo excruciating, dangerous and unsanitary DIY operations to "cure" this. Yep, I'm feeling pretty shrill right about now.

The bigger problem, however, is to justify that anger when it's not directed at issues which are so obviously, manifestly wrong. And that's a particular challenge for Western feminists, because some huge battles have been won: I love voting. I love being able to drive (OK, only on Forza, but I could totally do it on the roads if I can just learn to tell my left from my right reliably under pressure). I love that I went to university. I love that nobody is approaching me with a pair of rusty scissors.

The battles that remain involve telling people -- often, but not exclusively, men -- that I don't like things they like, and I wish they didn't like them either. I'm sorry, I know that you enjoy sexist jokes on TV panel shows, but they make me uncomfortable. I'm sorry, I know that you read lads' mags, but I find them deeply depressing. I'm sorry, I know that you don't think it's a problem that women are under-represented in parliament, in science and in the media, but it is.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I feel hugely uncomfortable with trying to dictate other people's tastes -- and I certainly wouldn't try to "ban" jokes or magazines or adverts or toys (or whatever) that I disagreed with. But fundamentally, feminism is about trying to change people's minds. It just is. I am a killjoy. The last time I can remember someone trying to make feminism fun, it was Geri Halliwell jiggling around in a Union Jack dress burbling about "girl power" to flog a few more records for Simon Fuller. The only hope I can offer is that living in a more equal word will make everyone happier, on average -- but the truth is that for some people, the current world is working out very well, thank you very much.

Which brings me to the last, and biggest point. One of the most thought-provoking responses to my original question was this: "IMHO, [the] single biggest issue should be to work out why vast majority of women don't think feminism represents them." Is it because the big battles have been won? That must be something to do with it. Is it because first-world feminists don't talk enough about the struggles of women elsewhere? Probably, but I can care about being allowed to use "Ms" and the withdrawal of abortion rights.

Is it because feminism doesn't seem very fun? Undeniably. We've just got to do it anyway.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.