Take Me Out and the failures of feminism

In this guest post, Alan White says that the ideology has taken a pounding from the postmodernist wrecking ball.

At the end of last year, I wrote a piece about the challenges feminism faced -- and asked whether well-educated Western women really have anything to complain about, compared with those elsewhere in the world? It's a topic that several writers have wrestled with recently, and it provoked the below response from Alan White, who has written in outlets ranging from the TLS to Private Eye.

- Helen

As forums for a feminist protest go, the ITV Saturday night dating show Take Me Out is somewhat unlikely. The format is simple: 30 girls are lined up behind buzzers, a man appears on stage, and over a series of rounds he is subjected to an appraisal of his looks, character and lifestyle with the help of various VTs featuring his friends and family. When a girl sees something she doesn't like she buzzes out, and at the end the man chooses his date from the remainder.

It's all pretty harmless. But in the current series the atmosphere recently turned rather edgy, thanks to "Damion from Weston-super-Mare". It started well for the lad: he's a model and his good looks ensured that hardly any of the girls pressed their buzzers upon his arrival on the stage. In the next round, there were a few jokey exchanges over his chest hair.

Then things changed. The next VT revealed Damion had previously been the lover of glamour model turned body builder Jodie Marsh (something the lady in question immediately denied via - where else - Twitter). A cacophony of buzzers met this revelation. From a wide array of possible dates, Damion was left with just a handful of women who'd be prepared to go on a free holiday with him, and even they didn't look sure. He started to get defensive.

Things got worse. First he announced that he'd wanted to go on a date with Lucy (one of the girls who'd buzzed out) because she was the most attractive there; then he said he'd wanted a brunette because he "always attracted blondes". The court was in uproar. "How can we compete with Lucy?" demanded one. More ringing buzzers, every "PEOW!" a loud slap round the immaculately-groomed chap's chops.

Damion finished up with just a choice of two girls, one of whom he essentially went on to call ugly, to a rousing chorus of boos, after she announced she "didn't like the lad". Having finally ended up on a date with a deeply unimpressed (blonde) girl, he subsequently managed to get her name wrong in the post-debacle interview.

What lessons can we draw from this? Damion came across as a twat of colossal proportions, rightly held to account by a most unlikely collection of feminists - perma-tanned girls who were just looking for a nice bloke. These are not the kind of women who are prone to marking a strident defence of their sex, as Jenny Turner has argued in the London Review of Books:

Alison Wolf showed that the 16 per cent pay-gap masks a much harsher divide, between the younger professional women - around 13 per cent of the workforce - who have 'careers' and earn just as much as men, and the other 87 per cent who just have 'jobs', organised often around the needs of their families, and earn an awful lot less. Feminism overwhelmingly was and is a movement of that 13 per cent - mostly white, mostly middle-class, speaking from, of, to themselves within a reflecting bubble.

I was recently tired and stuck in the office on a Saturday when I saw Louise Mensch and Stella Creasy arguing about the "Top Totty" beer in the House of Commons bar. I was in a bad mood. Why weren't these women helping the huge number of unemployed people - never mind women - in their constituencies?

When Stella Creasy and I were in our 20s she was busy being a wonk while I was walking round Waltham Forest with outreach teams trying to work out why some of her future constituents were shooting and stabbing each other, and now she's in a position of power all she cares about is the name of a beer? Sulkily, I tweeted them both with exactly those thoughts. Shortly after, Creasy replied telling me that MPs can care about other things, and a couple of days later went on to write a moving call for action on youth crime. Did I feel like a pompous arse? I may well have done.

But this, as Helen Lewis has rightly pointed out, is feminism's biggest challenge - in her words feminism doesn't feel relevant enough: "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."

Like other grand narratives, feminism has taken a pounding from the postmodernist wrecking ball. Misogyny isn't a political problem any more - it's a personal one. "Woman" is no longer a Marxist class. That world view has knocked down the boundaries between wider social questions and supposed fripperies. If you imply that annoyance at the BBC making one of its "Women of the Year" a panda is part of a nebulous problem that encompasses genital mutilation in the developing world and every injustice done to women in between, you can expect a backlash, and not just from the expected quarters.

This returns me to Jenny Turner's article. She says:

"At the moment, the popular elements [of feminism] include 'empowerment', 'choice', 'freedom' and, above all, 'economic capacity' - the basic no-frills neoliberal package...This young woman has been sold a deal, a 'settlement'. So long as she works hard and doesn't throw bricks or ask awkward questions, she can have as many qualifications and abortions and pairs of shoes as she likes."

In the face of this, perhaps it's time for feminism to become more, not less, theoretical: from that basis concrete causes can emerge. It needs to engage with what this deal actually means for society - and thereby women. Turner cites, as an example, the abstract deconstruction of the idea of the nuclear family - from those arguments emerged the growth of nurseries and shared parenting in 1970s North London, where attention was given to "children's health requirements, play space, schooling, housing needs and...anything else we could think of."

Feminists need to argue more strongly that the minutiae is only the start. Rape jokes, one could argue, are a product of neoliberalism - the Loaded culture that segues into UniLad - but this is one of the first pieces I've seen that articulates the wider social ill lurking behind them.

I call for one more thing. When Damion went out with Chelsea, his delightfully grouchy, nonplussed date, she gave him a tough time. But in Take Me Out: the Gossip (never let it be said I don't research thoroughly), she gave a measured interview. She said: "I think he's insecure: I'm trying to help him." When feminists see sexism, outrage isn't always the right response. Engagement and empathy are somewhat under-deployed concepts in these times of Twitterstorms and online comments.

The Internet is often a cesspool, bringing the very worst out of people. Not so long ago a female gamer criticised the sexism in Batman: Arkham City. She was inundated with disgusting responses. Her reply, I thought, was beautiful. She asked for more comments, more discussion - because, after all, This Is Water. If feminism wants to start anywhere, there's no better place than with compassion.

Update: Stella Creasy points out that she has done outreach work in Waltham Forest for the last 12 years. I'm happy to correct this.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.