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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.