Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game - it’s a total game-changer

Women shouldn't have to "emulate male behaviour" to get ahead.

Another day, another columnist demonstrating just how warped the public perception of "feminism" is. 

Today in The Guardian, Hannah Betts revealed that "Feminism and flirtation are by no means unlikely bedfellows". Thanks Hannah. I’d no idea.

Apparently, joint research from the University of California, Berkeley and the London School of Economics demonstrates that women who use "feminine wiles" get ahead better in life – to be exact, used in negotiation, the use of these "wiles" improves one’s "prospects of brokering success by up to a third". So far, so depressingly uncontentious; Betts herself refers to Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital - a book which, like Betts’s article, does nothing to challenge gender norms, and everything to teach women how to play the game.

According to Betts, an ability to play the game and deploy "the theatricality of femininity", could "prove one of feminism’s chief weapons" – if only the dour, naysaying, “dungaree”-wearing crowd would just let us chicas get our flirt on.

So what’s the issue? Should the dungarees just slip into something more sexual?

Short answer, no.

Firstly, this type of reductive, lazy stereotyping is debate at its most disingenuous. Betts creates and dispenses with her mythical adversary by undermining her – and, by extension, anyone else who actually genuinely exists and genuinely disagrees with Betts’s argument. "Oh, you disagree with me?" Betts snidely says. Well, I’ve dealt with your sort – you’re that mythical ‘Seventies’ feminist, and I’ve already pointed out that you’re too vested in your dungarees to bother arguing with – you’ll ‘never be happy’.

Betts’s choice of words is telling here – she doesn’t say that this type of feminist will never agree, she says they’ll "never be happy" with the type of "feminism" she proposes. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. By presenting those who oppose her version of "feminism" as unhappy rather than disagreeing, she undermines the position from which they disagree. It is presented as emotion, rather than logic – women are emotional and illogical – where have I heard that one before? Or maybe it was here? Even more insidiously, Betts’s image of the unhappy feminist in a shapeless onesie buys into the decades-old patriarchal dismissal of feminists as joyless, sexless crones, who exist only to ruin everyone else’s fun. So, who wants to align themselves with illogical killjoys? No, me neither. Betts / Patriarchy 1: Feminism: 0

Betts quotes research director Dr Laura Kray, who said that, “Feminine charm is a strategic behaviour aimed at making the person you are negotiating with feel good in order to get them to agree to your goals.” Betts extrapolates from this:

"According to Kray and her team, charm evolved to meet the vexed issue that, while being perceived as too masculine is disapproved of in women, failure to meet masculine norms means that they are considered less competent. A little light flirtation allows women to emulate male behaviour, while creating an alluring diversion."

So, Betts reasons, by being critical of this type of behaviour, feminists are preventing women from getting on in life – and who could argue with that?

Let me try.

The fundamental problem with Betts’ argument is that she has a woefully short-sighted vision of what feminism could achieve. Feminism isn’t against women using sex because feminists are sexless, feminism is against women using sex because it is indicative of the prevailing inequity which means that women have to use sexual attraction in order to "divert" men, and enable them to "emulate male behaviour". Betts points to the use of flirtation by Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher – two women who, against all sexist odds, came to power. Betts herself says of Thatcher, "If Alan Clark and his cronies were going to objectify her, then she was going to work it." And that "if" is crucial: Thatcher flirted because they objectified her. It was a tactic, deployed in order to deal with sexism. So the use of "feminine wiles" by these two women is not something to be celebrated; it is something to be deplored.

Betts attempts to illustrate the reasonableness of her point by presenting flirting as the female counterpart to "rhetoric". She says that like this ‘”manly” art', flirtation relies on sprezzatura. But Betts is being disingenuous here – and she must know it. Rhetoric was one of the key elements of Renaissance Humanism; it was, and remains, intensely cerebral, and the dichotomy between male rhetoric and female flirtation harks back to the ancient principle that aligned the man with the mind and the woman with the body. Using rhetoric displays your mental agility, your ability to dazzle your adversary with your words; flirting relies on your sex-appeal. Therefore, Betts’s clumsy attempt to use Camus’s assertion that ”Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question” is, like her throwing around of Butler and de Beauvoir, in itself a diversionary tactic – designed to distract us from the reality that her argument merely rehearses centuries-old gender disparities, rather than attempting to challenge their foundations. If she were dead. Butler would be turning in her grave to be thus co-opted.

Betts is not wrong to suggest that feminine "wiles" help women get what they want. But she is wrong to suggest that this type of behaviour should be the natural ally of feminism. Feminism doesn’t mean learning to play the game: it’s a total game-changer.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman

 

A couple flirting beside a Christmas tree, December 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.