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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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war