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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.